It’s rough when you realize the true saboteur of your dreams is an insider. If you aren’t living up to your highest potential and achieving your goals, blame your brain’s own negativity bias.
Positive emotions give us access to the control center in the brain that initiates action toward our goals. Yet, the human brain has evolved to prioritize negative emotions, experiences and memories.
Here’s The Good News
It’s totally within your power to upgrade from this default bias starting today.
And it can make all the difference to your success, health and fulfillment.
It’s easier than you think.
It just requires awareness and 3 routinely practiced steps.
Before we get to those, it’s really helpful to understand a few basics about our evolutionary past and how our brains work so that you can effectively override the default system.
Why It’s Tough To Focus On The Positive
“A belief is only a thought I keep thinking.”- Abraham Hicks
There’s a scientific reason why negative inner voices get more air time in your head than positive ones. Our brains are hard-wired to continuously scan for potential threats.
Such focus on the possible worst-case scenario contributed to the survival of our early ancestors. Those who were nervous, tense and attentive to possible danger had a better chance of living to see another day.
As a result, the human brain evolved with a bias toward the negative. Studies show that we recognize and respond more quickly to an angry or sad face, than a happy face. Negative ads and headlines draw more of our attention. Our own shortcomings are far more apparent to us than our achievements. We notice lack more than abundance.
This inherited feature drives us to continuously look for and remember bad news, danger, difficulty, conflict and disappointment - even though it makes us feel bad to do so.
One might ask, how’s this workin’ for us?
The truth is the negativity bias that kept our predecessors alive now adversely affects our ability to thrive.
The Problem With Negative Thinking
“Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain. In effect, what you pay attention to — what you rest your mind on — is the primary shaper of your brain.”
- Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness, The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence
The brain is an organ of learning. By design, it’s impressionable, malleable, adaptable. One third of it’s neural structure is built-in. The other two-thirds is waiting to be molded by the thoughts and feelings that are most repeated.
A negative experience, thought or emotion causes the secretion of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (or adrenaline). Cortisol is needed for a healthy fight or flight response. It regulates our metabolism and blood pressure.
When negative emotions are chronic, as they are for many people today, the body continuously releases cortisol. Too much cortisol has many deleterious effects.
An excess of cortisol suppresses the immune system, increases blood pressure and blood sugar, impairs learning, decreases libido, produces acne, contributes to obesity, insomnia and plays a major role in more serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
In addition, the more negativity we experience, the more our brains build a neural network around it. We strengthen our negativity bias and we predispose ourselves to more negative experiences.
The Power Of Positivity
“We have two choices: continuously blame the world for our stress or take responsibility for our reactions and deliberately change our emotional climate.”
-Doc Childre, HeartMath Institute Founder
HeartMath® Institute Research identified a positive emotions as the quickest way to shift our heart rhythms and increase our overall coherence.
In a coherent state, the brain, heart and autonomic nervous system are in their optimal state of functioning. In that state, we’re building inner reserves, rather than depleting them.
Positive emotions reduce stress and reactivity. They strengthen immunity, increase longevity, promote success and drive us toward our goals.
The more positive emotions we experience, the more we sensitize the brain to positivity, hardwiring those pathways and increasing the amount of positive experiences that we have in the future.
Learning To Generate A Positive Emotion
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
The only way to overcome our internal bias and that of our world is to learn to generate a positive emotion. If we don’t, we will be lead by the default. We’ll lower our expectations, reach for a false sense of security and compromise on our goals. We fall short of our potential.
Our natural state is one of peace, calm, connection and inner ease. We are meant to visit the fight or flight state for short periods, but we aren’t meant to reside there.
Here are some ways you can practice self-generating a positive emotion:
Focus your attention on a feeling of appreciation, care or love for someone or something in our life.
Imagine a place that makes you feel relaxed or happy and re-experience the feeling you have when you’re there.
Recall an accomplishment and allow yourself to wallow in the good feelings it brings.
Or, simply recreate a feeling of calm or ease, such as sinking down into a warm bubble bath at the end of a cold day, and sustain that feeling.
The most important thing is that you do not just think the feeling, but that you feel it, amplify, absorb it and experience it in the body.
Here’s How To Begin To Change The Bias
This basic and simple exercise can be used daily as a meditation, or in the heat of the moment when you feel yourself tanking.
You can begin or end your day with this practice while lying in bed.
Some days it is much harder than others, but anything you do towards this end is progress.
Step # 1 Notice You Feel Bad
Pause and acknowledge the feelings. Jot down up to 3 words to describe. If you don’t have a pen, note mentally.
Step #2 Choose A Preferred Feeling
Ask yourself what you would prefer to be feeling. Write down up to 3 words.
Step #3 Make A Sincere Attempt To Experience The Preferred State
Spend 2–3 minutes. Set a timer. Do your best to feel these feelings. Sometimes, it requires your imagination, acting as if, or remembering a time when you felt this way to kickstart the feeling. Focus your attention on it. When you do this, you automatically amplify it. Further imagine this feeling state expanding within and around you, to the best of your ability.
“The way to overcome negative thoughts and destructive emotions is to develop opposing, positive emotions that are stronger and more powerful.”
There you go! We have the sanction of the Dalai Lama. He was right and there is science to back it. (Read Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hansen for more of the neuroscience.)
- You can rewire your brain and change your life.
2. You are building your own neural circuitry based upon the thoughts and feelings you repeat the most.
3. You may have great plans, but it’s really the program that is running behind the scenes that is determining your success.
4. Don’t be discouraged when you realize this. The good news is you were messing things up and you can make them right. It’s not that hard to get control over. Like everything, it just takes dedication and practice. The payoff is big.
5. I suggest making it part of your daily routine. It not only feels a hell of a lot better, it also is better for your health and it gets you closer to your goals.
6. Our negativity bias helped our Stone Age ancestors survive.
7. It’s now impairing our ability to thrive.
8. Stress hormones have their place, but we modern humans are saturating ourselves in them. The hurried pace, the over-exposure to negatively biased news, our fears and insecurities about money, as well as our unreasonable standards of measuring up all cause the release of cortisol in the body.
9. To create healthy, balanced and successful lives, we have to intentionally counter our negativity bias by turning our focus to the positive. Again, we can rewire our brains. They’re designed to be molded. We’re forming them anyway. We might as well shape them to our advantage, rather than our disadvantage.
10. When we do this, we build our immunity, resilience, and connect to the part of our brains that motivates us to take action toward our dreams.
Here are the steps that can be used in the heat of the moment, or as a part of your daily meditation:
-Notice how you feel. Name the negative feelings.
-Choose how you would prefer to be feeling. I find it helps to write down 3 words.
-Set aside a minimum of 3 minutes to consciously experience the preferred state.
11. As you practice these feeling, they become more real. And your brain changes, as well. It happens more quickly than you might think.
12. Learning to activate and sustain a positive emotion is the key to good health. It’s also key to being able to manifest your goals.
13. If you want to change your life, this is the most powerful way that I know. This is a tool you can use whenever you find yourself anything less than hopeful, excited, empowered, happy…
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