negativity bias

How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

Read More

Dodging sticks and chasing carrots

photo-1442782844694-d3cb0de38fd4Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.

And that’s just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes – by any means necessary. She doesn’t care if we happen to suffer along the way – from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger – or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field.

You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it’s great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here’s how to take in the good – in three simple steps.

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.

Good facts include positive events – like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It’s private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable – but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience.

Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.

People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

Read More

The impact of experiences

Baby Girl Holding a PumpkinChildren express what they feel and what they want through their actions, emotions, signals, and, by their second birthday, words. Then people respond, including their parents, teachers, and other children; responses can be active or passive, verbal or nonverbal, positive or negative.

These interactive episodes are usually brief, so there are a lot of them each day. For example, from multiple studies, a reasonable estimates that a typical toddler has his or her wants thwarted about twenty times an hour, or on an average of once every three minutes.

Whether it’s called for or not, each thwarting is a communication, a message, to the child: “No.” Then there are other messages: parents who come to a fussing baby in the middle of the night, children at school who let a new kid into their group, people who listen when you’re upset: “Yes.” Added to your personal experiences are the ones you witnessed: what happened when your siblings (if you had any) expressed themselves, and other children, and adults – and characters, real or fictional, in books, movies, and other media.

This learning about self-expression continues into adulthood and to this day. Throughout it, your brain’s negativity bias has highlighted episodes when self-expression led to painful feelings. The pain could be quite subtle, like mild dismay when a person’s eyes wander away while you’re speaking, or quite intense, like being spanked for mouthing off at a parent. In neural networks, the types of self-expression that led to pain became quickly associated with fear, and then with rewards like relief when you learned to inhibit them.

Read More

There’s more right with you than wrong with you (Day 66)

puzzle game solution head silhouette mind brainIn Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how ill or how hopeless you may feel.”

From the moment you are conceived, right up until the moment you take your last breath, there is more right with you than wrong with you.

It’s very easy to lose sight of this. When something good happens to us, we often don’t celebrate much and so don’t take it in. And when we do celebrate it’s often almost momentary. And yet we obsess about things that bother us.

Imagine a friend has said an unkind word to you. Often you’ll call that event to mind over and over. Sometimes you’ll elaborate the fantasy by imagining retaliations on your part. By sheer repetition, and by vividly imagining the scene over and over again, you carve pathways associated with the emotions of anger and resentment into your mind. But when a friend says something complimentary to you, you may just experience a lift in your mood for a few minutes. Unless you’re a very unusual person you probably don’t find yourself, months later, thinking about the compliment you were paid, the same way you would with an insult.

100 Days of LovingkindnessSimilarly, we tend to obsess over things that we think are wrong with us. We think over and over about the habits we want to change, and mentally beat ourselves up over them, whether it’s that we think we drink too much, or we think we’re lazy, or cowardly, or too unkind. But we ignore all our good habits. When we’re surfing the net late at night we castigate ourselves for our lack of willpower, but when we’re brushing our teeth for the second time that day or having our daily shower we don’t spend our time in the bathroom celebrating how wonderful it is that we take care of ourselves. Instead, we let the mind drift. And what does it drift to? Half the time we’re probably giving ourselves a hard time about our faults!

(This reminds me of a saying of the Buddha, where he’s describing the thoughts an ethical person has regarding others: ime sattā averā abyāpajjhā anīghā sukhi attānaṃ pariharantū’ti. This is usually translated as something like “‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.” But the word “ease” here is “sukha,” or joy, so the last part could just as easily be “May they look after themselves joyfully,” implying that we should rejoice and appreciate the good habits we have that involve taking care of ourselves.)

When we’re ill, we obsess about what’s going wrong in the body. We don’t think about the fact that since we’re alive virtually everything in the body is going right! And when we’re healthy, how often do we celebrate our good health? Hardly ever, for most of us.

So I’m going to suggest that you devote more mental space to celebrating and rejoicing in the ordinary things that are going right, and that you’re doing right, in your life.

  • When you’re driving, notice that you’re driving with care and attention, and celebrate this. Say to yourself things like “Yay, me!”
  • When you’re reading, pause once in a while and rejoice in the fact that you can read. (As a father whose oldest child is only just beginning to stumble through reading primers, I’m at the stage of recognizing how amazing this is.)
  • Notice that you’re conscious. What an amazing thing that is! No one has the faintest idea what consciousness is — how matter interacting with matter can create this thing called “experience.” You’re a miracle!
  • Pause and celebrate your good health. Say “thank you” to your body. If you’re in bad health, rejoice in the fact that your body is forever trying to heal itself, and that most things in your body are in fact functioning.
  • Celebrate having access to clean drinking water, clean air, food.
  • Celebrate having clothing and having possessions. If you’re poor and live in the developed world, you’re probably still richer than 90% of the world’s population.
  • Celebrate family and friends.
  • Celebrate the fact that you’re alive.
  • Celebrate that you’re able to celebrate.

We really need to make an effort to celebrate, because of the mind’s inherent negativity bias. We need to consciously celebrate in order to carve pathways associated with joy and love into the fabric of our brains. And when we do celebrate, life becomes joyful.

There’s more right with us than wrong with us. And that in itself is something to be grateful for.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

Read More

Seek out the good news

“Tell the truth.” It’s the foundation of science, ethics, and relationships.

But we have a brain that evolved to tell lies to help us survive. As I’ve written before, over several hundred million years our ancestors:

  • Had to avoid two kinds of mistakes: thinking there’s a tiger in the bushes but actually all is well, and thinking all is well but actually there is a tiger about to pounce. The cost of the first mistake is needless worry while the cost of the second one is no more gene copies. Mother Nature designed us to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.
  • Had to get “carrots” and avoid “sticks.” If you don’t get a carrot today you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you don’t avoid that stick you’ll die and get no carrots forever. Consequently, negative experiences are fast-tracked into memory – “once burned, twice shy” – while most positive experiences slip through the brain like water through a sieve; in effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

As a result, we routinely overestimate threats while underestimating opportunities and resources. Yes, many people have an “optimism bias” in what they say – but in their actions, they work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure, they remember failures and rejections more than successes and kindness from others, they need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions for a healthy relationship, and they muzzle themselves and play smaller in life to avoid a list of dreaded experiences.

It’s as if we live in a subtle nightmare in which the shadows and threats are exaggerated while our allies and inner resources seem distant and ineffectual. We think the dream is real so there’s no point in trying to wake up from it. Our beliefs in the dream trap us like the bars of an invisible cage.

The root cause of suffering and harm is ignorance, illusion, not seeing things as they actually are. But when we wake up and see the facts and live in the light, we feel so much freer, at ease, unthreatened, confident, overflowing, loved, and loving.

Remember some time in your past when you realized that things were not as bad as you thought, or that others were more caring, or that you were more capable. How did it feel in this instance to wake up from your own bad dream?

For instance, I recognized in my twenties that while growing up I’d been a nerd, not a wimp – a relief! Other examples from people I know: A woman realized she could be strong and people would still like her. People in recovery learn they can have a great time without being buzzed. Kids come to see that there’s no bogeyman in the closet. A girl gradually understands that she can let in her dad’s love even though he’s annoying. Another young woman lets it sink in that plenty of guys like her even though some are clustered around a “hot” classmate. A man in his 50’s realizes that no one cares whether he loses some hair. A woman finds out she can turn her art program into a publishable book.

Yes, sometimes when we wake up it’s to bad news: perhaps there’s a ceiling in your career, or you’ve been too cranky with your kids, or a partner is just not trustworthy in an important way. Living in the truth means seeing both good and bad clearly.

But because of the brain’s evolved negativity bias, most of the time when we wake up, it’s to truly good news.

How?

The good news that there’s no tiger – or that you can deal with it just fine
Consider your fears. Especially the everyday ones, such as: if I say how I really feel, people won’t like it; if I don’t lose these ten pounds, no guy worth having will want me; if I ask for a raise I’ll get criticized; if I start a little business, it will flop; if I take on some school loans it will be hard to pay them back.

How many are really true? What are the odds of them happening? If they indeed happened, how bad would it really be? And if the unlikely event did happen and if it felt really bad, how would you cope?

How does any anxiety in your temperament bias you to feel more threatened, more uneasy, more cautious than you reasonably need to be?

Think about the many things that protect and support you, from locks to laws, friends to credit cards. Think about the inner strengths you’ve used for tough times in the past, that you could draw upon to deal with challenges today.

The good news that you are full of good qualities, and that the world is full of opportunities you could likely fulfill with reasonable effort
Consider other abilities you have, like smarts, grit, talents, determination, integrity, passion, patience, sincerity, goodheartedness . . . to name a few.

What have you always wanted to do – but told yourself is out of reach?

Ask yourself what would happen if you invested just 20 minutes a day in meditation, or in exercise, or in supportive conversation with a friend or partner – or what would happen if you invested just an hour a day in all three.

What would happen if you spent half an hour a day or even a couple hours on some project, such as writing a book, laying the groundwork for changing careers, building a boat, learning a musical instrument, or making art – and could these hours add up over a single year?

The good news that you are liked, loved, and valued
Consider some of the many ways you have been seen, included, appreciated, liked, and loved. Think about the people who have seen the real you – and still cared about you. Can you see some of the many qualities you have that another person would recognize, respect, value, be drawn to, like to have on his or her team, be interested in, feel warmly toward, even cherish?

Consider the relationships you could readily have, the friends you could make, the love you could find if you drew on your courage to extend yourself, open up, stand up for what you need, and ask for what you want.

How about seeing the good in yourself, your own compassion, kindness, decency, good intentions, integrity, and loving heart.

If you trusted in the good news of your own goodness, how far and wide would you play in this life?

Read More

Tone down the negative, enhance the positive

Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish – and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.

But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others – including mine – or your own in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing, and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already – including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age, and death – without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.

Your brain evolved exactly such a “negativity bias” in order to help your ancestors pass on their genes – a bias that produces lots of collateral damage today.

Painful experiences are more than passing discomforts. They produce lasting harms to your physical and mental health. When you’re feeling frazzled, pressured, down, hard on yourself, or simply frustrated, that:

  • Weakens your immune system
  • Impairs nutrient absorption in your gastrointestinal system
  • Increases vulnerabilities in your cardiovascular system
  • Decreases your reproductive hormones; exacerbates PMS
  • Disturbs your nervous system

Consider the famous saying: “Neurons that wire together, fire together.” This means that repeated painful experiences – even mild ones – tend to:

  • Increase pessimism, anxiety, and irritability
  • Lower your mood
  • Reduce ambition and positive risk-taking

In couples, upsetting experiences foster mistrust, heightened sensitivity to relatively small issues, distance, and vicious cycles. At much larger scales – between groups or nations – they do much the same.

So don’t take painful experiences lightly, neither the ones you get nor, honestly, the ones you give. Prevent them when you can, and help them pass through when you can’t.

How?

This week, take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door – and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind.

This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity, like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.

In effect, you’re simply saying to yourself something you’d say to a dear friend in pain: I want you to feel better, and I’m going to help you. Try saying that to yourself in your mind right now. How does it feel?

When emotional pain does come, even softly, try to hold it in a large space of awareness. In a traditional metaphor, imagine stirring a big spoon of salt into a cup of water and then drinking it: yuck. But then imagine stirring that spoonful into a clean bucket of water and then drinking a cup: it’s the same amount of salt – the same amount of worry or frustration, feeling inadequate or blue – but held in a larger context. Notice that awareness is without any edges, boundless like the sky, with thoughts and feelings passing through.

In your mind, watch out for how negative information, events, or experiences can seem to overpower positive ones. For example, researchers have found that people typically will work harder or put up with more crud to avoid losing something than to gain the same thing. And they feel more contaminated by one fault than they feel cleansed or elevated by several virtues. Try to switch this around; for instance, pick some of your good qualities and keep seeing how they show up in your life this week.

Be careful whenever you feel stymied, frustrated, or disappointed. Humans (and other mammals) are very vulnerable to what’s called “learned helplessness” – developing a sense of futility, immobilization, and passivity. Focus on where you can make a difference, where you do have power; it may only be inside your own mind, but that’s better than nothing at all.

In your relationships, be mindful of reacting more strongly to one negative event than to a bunch of positive ones. For example, studies have shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative encounter. Pick an important relationship, and then really pay attention to what’s working in it; let yourself feel good about these things. Deal with the problems in this relationship, sure, but keep them in perspective.

Overall, whenever you remember, deliberately tilt toward the positive in your mind. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Given the negativity bias in the brain, you’re only leveling the playing field.

Read More

Don’t be intimidated

On a blog at the Huffington Post, I used the example of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive” as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful – since that helped keep our ancestors alive – so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” With his march, Colbert was obviously mocking those who play on fear, since we certainly don’t need any new reminders to keep fear alive.

This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families to schoolyards, organizations, and nations. Whether it’s an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that’s routinely told it’s under “Threat Level Orange” – it’s the same human brain that reacts in all cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom, and sense of inner strength – a mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

How?

The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard – pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll probably have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Body and Brain Going Negative

Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. At a larger scale, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for gestalt, visual-spatial processing, so it’s advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment).

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain – the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory – in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

In effect, as I wrote on Huff Post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure. (For more on the neuropsychology of the negativity bias, and references, see the slide sets on my website.)

That learning from your childhood and adulthood – both what you experienced yourself and saw others experiencing around you – is locked and loaded in your head today, ready for immediate activation, whether by a frown across a dinner table or by TV images of a car-bombing 10,000 miles away.

What to Do?

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm – whether it’s a family member who threatens emotional punishment or political figures talking about inner or outer enemies. Consider for yourself whether their fears are valid – or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

This mindfulness of both the inner workings of your brain and the outer mechanisms of fear-promotion can by itself make you less prone to needless fear.

Then you won’t be so vulnerable to intimidation by apparent “tigers” that are in fact manageable, blown out of proportion, or made of paper-mache.

Read More

How to feel gratitude

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

But we’re no longer hominids, and life no longer involves a struggle for physical safety and security — unless, for example, you’re in the armed forces and serving in a combat zone. So most of the time, for most of us, our negativity bias simply impoverishes us emotionally, making us think that our lives are much worse than they actually are. For we are, for the most part, blessed with wealth, security, and abundance that our hominid forebears quite literally could not have dreamed of.

Because the mind has negativity bias, though, we tend to lack appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives — no matter how abundant they are — and focus on what’s wrong, or what we think’s wrong (which is often not the same thing). And so we often walk around in a troubled and stressed state, even though basically 99.9% of our life is going just fine.

The Indian teacher Naropa described the negativity bias when he said “Samsara is the tendency to find fault.”

In order to feel a sense of security and wellbeing, we need to consciously remind ourselves of what’s going right in our lives. We need to reassure ourselves, and calm down the inner hominid who’s constantly on the alert for problems, and who often invents them when they don’t exist. In Buddhism, this practice is called “rejoicing in merit.”

  • We can offer the mind reassurance by expressing gratitude. At the start of my meditation practice, these days, I often become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning. The heart is beating: “Thank you.” The lungs are breathing in air: “Thank you.”
  • Even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.”
  • I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.”
  • Even if a part of my body is in pain, I focus on the fact that it’s still functioning. I have back problems, and so I remind myself that my back is basically functioning well: it’s keeping me upright, allowing me to move around, and protecting the spinal cord. So I say, “Thank you.”

By the way, it’s important to actually make the sound of the words “Thank you” in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real.

This practice doesn’t deny that there are problems in our lives. We may not have a job. We may be in debt. But we can balance our concern about these things with an appreciation of what’s going right in our lives.

By focusing on what’s going right in, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong, and come to realize that we are indeed blessed. When I do this simple practice, which only takes a few minutes, I feel an immense sense of gratitude and joy.

What about you?

Read More
Menu