Simply put, as our brains evolved over time, it has been critically important to learn from negative experiences – to survive. Your brain’s most important function is to keep you alive. It does so by regulating your heart rate, body temperature and a host of other physiological functions but also by constantly scanning the environment for possible threats and rewards.
What is negativity bias? Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes – one, thinking there was a lion in the bushes when there wasn’t one, or two, thinking everything was fine but actually the lion was about to pounce. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, but the cost of the second mistake meant you never needed to worry about lions ever again. Our brain prioritizes negative experiences from memory – as they say – once burned, twice shy.
How do we shift our negative bias? According to Sarah McKay (PhD neuroscientist) “the best way to shift your bias is to practice experiencing positive emotions. If you savor positivity, you’ll be practiced at experiencing positive emotions in the future”. Effectively this means, to be more positive, you must teach your brain to do so! Unfortunately, it’s not a quick fix either – due to our determined negative bias we get caught in that Chicken Little trap routinely. Our brain is a bit like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon from the good stuff. Bugger.
Okay, so how do we practice experiencing positive emotions? Crikey! Where do we start? Do things that make you happy or make others happy – simple and random acts of kindness for starters, volunteering, making a lovely meal for a significant someone. Stopping and taking a minute to really enjoy your surroundings – how does the sun make you feel? Take a minute to appreciate the colour of the sky. Take five minutes at the end of the day to write down the positive things or experiences you’ve had during the day that you’re grateful for – it doesn’t have to be a long list. Savoring a new flavor that you haven’t experienced before, taking a long walk, cuddling your furry friend etc. Practice ways to bounce back from negative events – how bad was it really? What could you have done differently? When you master an attitude of optimism, you understand that good things are coming and that the bad things pass quickly and can be ignored. There are literally thousands of ways to help your brain learn new positive signals. Check out Dr Google for heaps more ideas. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, advises “intentionally focusing on a positive aspect of an experience, and holding that perspective in mind for at least three or four breaths (about 20 seconds) can let the positive have more of a chance to stick and shape our frame of mind.”
Lastly, deliberately creating positive emotions about situations can have a huge impact on how your day pans out. Sue Langley, master trainer and global business consultant in emotional intelligence, once told the Everest team that she spends the first 10 minutes of her day purposefully smiling. Now, this might sound like Sue could have lost her marbles, but this simple physical technique helps the brain re-wire its negative bias. If you’re stuck in a rut of negativity – firstly don’t be surprised. It’s human nature. But you can change your negative bias to a positive outlook by having a go at some of the ideas above. Be persistent. Keep going. You will notice a difference in time.