I have a dream. I’ll bet you share it, too.
I have a dream that I could get to the place where I could experience a deep, sustaining joy… every day.
The kind of joy that isn’t touched by the challenges and storms of life.
Now, I am not naïve. There is no such thing as a happy pill that will make life all sunshine and smiles. I know that life can be difficult. I know the impact of circumstances will affect me until the day I die.
But, wouldn’t it be great if we were able to increase the frequency and experience of the “good days” and decrease the impact of the “bad days”?
Good news! There is.
Incredibly Encouraging News
Research has now verified two things:
1. There are hidden forces at work in our brains that hinder our ability to experience this dream more consistently.
2. There are some effective techniques that can help counteract the hidden forces and greatly improve our ability to experience more joy in our daily lives.
Ready to learn more? Let’s dig in.
The Unseen Gravitational Force for Misery
First, let’s talk about the natural situation we are all born with. There is a universal bias we humans experience that some call “the negativity bias.”
It means we easily, without effort…
- Focus on
- More vividly remember
… negative events and experiences compared to the positive.
Yes, we all know people who seem particularly strong in this bias. The negative Nancys and Nates of the world. But, we ALL have this problem to some degree.
- Your boss gives you a performance evaluation with 9 great things you are doing, and 1 thing that you need to improve. Which one do you think about the most?
- Your significant other tells you 27 things they love about you, but you brood over the one thing they are unhappy about.
- A loved one does many, many wonderful things… but the handful of things that bother you about them seem to be what you fixate on.
We more quickly see what’s wrong with a picture (and it sticks with us longer and more powerfully) than what is good about it.
How Our Brains Process Positive & Negative
Here’s why this naturally occurs: Our brains are hard wired to react more and hold on longer to negative stimuli than to positive.
This has been verified in brain scans of people viewing happy or pleasant images (smiling faces, pleasant landscapes) or negative images of people faces in distress, or images of suffering.
It turns out the brain stores our positive or neutral experiences in our standard memory systems.
But, the negative experiences? They are instantly registered and stored in what’s called our “implicit memory.”
It is like our negative experiences are stored in 3D vibrant, visceral color in your living room while our positive experiences are stored in 2D, dull gray in a storage unit off-site.
The negative experiences are more potent and the brain keeps them in an area for easy, ongoing access (where we can easily focus on and obsess over).
Dr. Rick Hanson says it is like the brain has Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences (they barely register, then slip away quickly).
Why The Problem Can Get Worse Over Time
It’s bad enough that the negative experiences are received and stored in a way that pulls us down.
What makes it worse is that each time you have a negative response to external stimuli, the neuro pathways traveled by the brain signals get reinforced like the well-traveled path through a grassy field.
These negative reactions in the brain slowly reshape the brain so that the next negative reaction to an event finds it even easier to travel down the well-worn pathways of anxiety, stress, depression, etc.
This is why you and I can find ourselves spiraling down the negativity hole… and seem surprised that one little thing can have a domino effect on your emotions.
Over time, we are in effect tilting the mental table, making our instinctive reactions more negative, more quickly and for a longer period of time.
But, it isn’t all bad news. The same process can be used for good.
The Ability To Rewire Our Brains
Scientific research has verified that we have the ability to reshape our brains in a different direction. We can establish, then reinforce new neural pathways that are less susceptible to the negativity bias.
That is incredibly good new. The question is how?
The rewiring of your brain and its natural reactions requires an intentional effort to think differently.
As we react and respond differently to our positive and negative experiences, our neurons fire in a different pattern. The classic expression is the neurons that fire together, wire together.
Like a muscle over time (and with effort), the more positive pathways get stronger and stronger as we intentionally reinforce them.
Research Studies See The Results
In groups that followed certain methods to process their positive and negative emotions in healthier ways, it was noted, using neural imaging, that in as short as 8 weeks their brains were being restructured.
In essence, they were not only rewriting their mental software (how they think), they were actually rewiring their mental hardware (the brain) that the software runs on.
Instead, they were able to create a virtuous cycle: more positive focus and self-talk led to tilting the table in the other direction.
As a result, the next event had them more easily and automatically reacting with a more positive perspective to a negative situation.
Plus, the positive events were experienced more powerfully and remembered longer.
How To Create A Virtuous Cycle
So, how exactly can we create a more positive cycle which creates greater joy that is less dependent on circumstances?
Just be more positive?
1. Intentionally notice (be on the lookout for) positive events.
Remember, our brains react to positive events like Teflon. They don’t fully register, often barely noticed if at all and quickly slide out of our awareness.
To counteract our brains barely noticing or remembering the good things that happen to us and around us, we must intentional tune our radar to be “good finders.”
You will be amazed as to all the good things happening that were virtually invisible until you have your antenna up for them.
One terrific little technique I use that forces me to slow down and notice the good things is an app on my phone called Alarmed. It enables me to set an unobtrusive single chime at whatever interval to remind me to stop and focus on things for which I’m grateful.
6 times a day the chime goes off, shaking me out of my automatic train of thought and making me ask this question:
“What has happened in the last hour for which I am thankful?”
Often, something happened that barely registered, but by intentionally remembering the last hour I can notice many small items worth giving thanks.
Here is the invisible truth: There are 5, 10, maybe even 15 positive events that happen to you in any given day:
- A smile directed at you
- A funny comment
- A kind word or gesture
- A thoughtful action done for us
- A small accomplishment
- A problem solved
- A delightful scene (like the laughter of a child, or two people holding hands)
- A beautiful cloud formation
- A touch on your shoulder that communicates care
Often, they slip right by us as our focus moves on. They are, in effect, wasted.
However, if we intentionally notice and leverage those small little items, the effect can be powerful.
Noticing is key… but it is just the start.
2. Pause to reflect, let sink in, savor the positive events
This part is very important. Many times a day, 10- 20 seconds at a time, there will be opportunities to fully register beneficial experiences in our brains.
Instead of having it register in a short, minor way and then you move on, you intentionally force yourself to think about, savor, and reflect on it.
When we intentionally seek to embrace and savor a positive experience, it heighten the encoding process that converts that beneficial experience into some kind of lasting change in your neural structures and functions.
When you stay in that moment, you are letting it soak in, not only longer and deeper but also you are reliving, re-experiencing the feelings of appreciation, wonder, gratitude.
As you do, those neurons that fire together, wire together and create new pathways that in just a matter of weeks begin to make it easier to notice and savor future good events.
3. Reflect/Savor daily
Step 2 focuses on savoring the positive at or around the time in which it occurred. This step focuses on further, cumulative reinforcement.
Take 5-10 minute every day (early in the morning as you face the day or at the end of the day) to reflect on the good that has happened in your life that day.
When you start listing them (journal) you quickly become amazed as to how much good stuff there is for which to be thankful. You can even review the compiled list every week. It can get pretty long.
Studies have shown that people who journal like this, who actually write down a list of things they are thankful for, can accelerate the rewiring process. You become more of what you tend to focus on.
I have been practicing this now for many months, and I can attest that I am seeing more positive around me than I ever seriously thought was there. I am more at peace, less anxious, less stressed, and more joyful.
Will you give this a try for a month? I think you will find, like I did, that this little exercise produces a benefit that far outweighs the effort.
YOUR TURN! Leave a comment below with an example of a small event that is worth savoring.