Sometimes, it seems like the universe is just trying to tell me something.
Does this every happen to you?
- A friend tells you a story about a particular topic.
- Then something on the same topic is the theme of an article in your e-mail inbox.
- That same day, a bumper sticker on the car in front of you has the same message.
- Basically, the same idea just keeps showing up every where you turn. Pervasive, much?
If my grammie was still alive she’d find a way to turn such a message into a number she could play in the lotto.
This happens to me often. And the message that has been thrown at me lately-Think positively.
The Negativity Bias
Did you know that you are hard wired to focus on the bad stuff?
You are. We all are. It’s called the negativity bias. Since I heard a podcast about the negativity bias recently, I am obviously now an expert and will be happy to explain it to you 🙂
I have recently started walking on the treadmill as part of my stem cell transplant recovery, and listening to podcasts as I trot along (ok, “trot” is generous. let’s say meander).When searching for a podcast to listen to this week, I stumbled (more accurate) upon the work of Dr. Rick Hanson. Dr. Hanson has a podcast called “The Happier Mind” that (from what I have surmised) combines principles of mindfulness and positive psychology to help listeners cultivate a more peaceful existence. The first episode? The Negativity Bias.
“The Negativity Bias refers to the notion that, when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.” 1
But why? Dr. Hanson suggests that as humans we have been historically programmed to focus on the negative, the scary, and the dangerous. That is, we have historically needed to be concerned with what Hanson calls “the stick” (think saber toothed tiger trying to eat us) rather than “the carrot” (think creating cave drawings). The basis for human survival was the ability to be on the lookout for the threats, the negative, and the troublesome things. Cultivating a negative bias in our brain was necessary then, but not so much anymore.
So now what? How to think positively.
Even though the negativity bias is no longer needed for our current somewhat cushy human existence, it has become part of the human brain. Luckily, we can adapt. Dr. Hanson provides neuroscience-based examples of how we can change the patterns in our brain (neuroplasticity). Instilling positive thoughts and memories so they are more easily accessible than the negative thoughts will retrain our brains. Like a sledding track in the snow, humans have historically gone down the same (negative) track over and over again making it deeper and deeper, but we can create new (positive) tracks that become our go-to path.
Dr. Hanson doesn’t pretend that creating new tracks, changing the brain, and beating the negativity bias is easy, but he does provide some guidance. He uses the acronym HEAL.
- H-Have a positive experience (or manufacture one). This “activates” the positive thinking
- E-Enrichment Make the positivity last by “installing” it. Focus on the positive experience/memory for a minute or two. Increasing the duration of positive focus fires the neurotransmitters. Firing=wiring.
- A-Absorb. You can increase your chances of absorbing the positive by:
- Involving multiple senses as you absorb the positive experience.
- Having novel positive experiences.
- Creating salient positive experiences that are meaningful to you.
- L-link. If possible, link positive and negative experiences.
Dr. Hanson uses the example of a making a fire. First you start the fire (H). Then you tend to and grow the fire (E). Next you sit by the fire and let it warm you (A). Lastly, if possible you link (L) the positive warm experience with the negative cold feelings you had before you made the fire. You can acknowledge the negative, but remember the positive, too.
How does this relate to balanced parenting?
Two days ago, my son woke me up at 5:15 a.m. by screaming in my ear that he hated me for “hiding” his book (note: I did not “hide” the book. He forgot where he put it. Just saying.) I was so mad at him for waking me up. At the same time, being awake so early meant I was able to watch the sunrise with my daughter (my son was banished to his room).
A little later, I texted a friend to recount the details of my son waking me up. I didn’t tell her about the happiness I felt watching the sunrise. When my husband returned from his workout around 7:00, I again narrated the negative story and left out the positive one.
It was not even 7 a.m. and my negativity bias was in full swing.
Focusing on the positive 100% of the time? Doing that will likely get me eaten by a woolly mammoth (What’s that? They are vegetarians, you say? Long ago extinct? That’s just what they want you to think.)
But focusing on the positive 80% of the time? I can do that. And maybe that will help me retrain my brain away from the negative so that my texts to my friends and my early a.m. conversations to my husband will recount positive experiences rather than spread my frustration.
The universe has been sending me messages to think positively, but I didn’t quite know how to do it. So here is what I am going to do-I will not deny the bad, but I will try to use the good (and H.E.A.L.) to steer off the negative track. As Dr. Hanson suggested in his podcast, “don’t be hijacked by the bad… Make the positive experiences bigger and more colorful. This will help ease and eventually replace the bad.”