The art of positive thinking
Are you glass half full or glass half empty? The art of feeling optimistic seems to come much easier to some than it does to others. And it’s a fact that those who suffer chronic painful conditions or with depression and anxiety, have a much harder time of thinking positively. Studies have long since looked at how underlying tendencies in the brain can make it sometimes harder to enjoy life or to maintain an optimistic state of mind. But through these studies, it has also become clear how to change these underlying tendencies and kick-start a new cycle to help feel more positive about life, stress and pain. As it is mental health awareness week, this blog explores what the negative bias is and how we can overcome it to feel more positive and live more fulfilling lives.
The negative bias
Are humans hard-wired to suffer? Some scientists seem to think so. And the reason being…evolution. Some scientists suggest that much of our suffering is a side effect of the instincts that nature has built into us. The theory is this; as humans, we do not have sharp teeth, we do not have sharp claws. Therefore, we cannot defend ourselves against bigger predators. We can’t easily outrun them either but the human brain means that we are more intelligent. This intelligence means that we are very good at anticipating and avoiding danger but at a cost, because being on the look-out for dangers, means that our brains have evolved to focus on negative information i.e. the danger and how to avoid it to stay alive. It theorises that as humans, this means our attention inevitably focuses on threats and why the mind can focus on negative emotions such as stress or pain. This is what scientists call the human ‘negative bias’.
Studies have shown that in humans, it can take as little as a tenth of a second to notice a threat e.g. an aggressive looking face, but it takes much longer to notice something pleasant. Because we react to threats much quicker, they go into our memories much more easily, while positive experiences take far longer to sink in. Scientists estimate that it can take five pleasant experiences to balance a single negative one. In a study where participants were asked to think about negative experiences whilst having their brains scanned, the scanner shows intense activity happening in the brain. When they were asked to think about pleasant experiences, the brain showed less intense activity. Why has evolution worked out in this way? Because as far as nature is concerned, it is far more important to survive than be happy.
How to change your outlook
The negative bias theory puts a bit of ‘doom and gloom’ perspective on life – we’re all condemned to a life of mental and physical suffering. But this is not the case. Studies have not only looked at how the negative bias works, but also the ways to overcome it and redress the balance of the way that we think. Understanding the negative bias is an important step towards re-balancing it. The secret to re-balancing the way we think is to be more aware of the small pleasures in everyday life. For those who suffer with chronic pain or stress, anxiety or depression, it can take practice for the feeling of pleasure to become rooted in the mind. Like with most things in life, if you want to make a sustainable change in life, they key is perseverance. To some, it may sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’ to simply say we need to focus on the smaller, more pleasant things in life. But, science has proved that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. So by focusing on pleasure, you encourage the parts of your brain that create sensations of happiness to grow and become stronger. The brain is constantly adapting. It’s not the case that you’re stuck with the brain that you’ve got. Like when we exercise to strengthen our muscles, we can exercise the brain and make it stronger.
An exercise for the brain
So how do we exercise the positive parts of the brain? Here is an exercise designed exactly for that. Try to practice it every day. As mentioned, perseverance is key. It is important to note that seeing a change in the state of your pain or stress levels doesn’t change drastically overnight. Change takes time and some days feel harder than others. Some days you’ll feel you have taken a huge leap forward and others will feel like you’ve slipped further back than when you started. I know it’s cliché to say it’s a journey, but it’s very true. Focus on why you’re doing the exercise rather than the frustrations of perhaps not feeling how you feel you should.
Try to notice the small things in your day that make you happy. When you become aware of them, simply pause and soak up the pleasure of the experience. At the end of the day, write down at least ten things that have made you happy that day. They don’t have to major experiences. It could be something small like the smell of your morning coffee or the bird you can hear chirping outside your window. Anything at all. But it is important to write down all ten things and not stop after you’ve reached five or six. It is ok to write down some of the same things each day. This exercise helps us to learn to focus more on the more pleasant aspects of life, learning to appreciate them and give them more attention. Over time, you’ll value these experiences more and therefore, the feelings of pain, and stress will lessen. After all, it is said that ‘what we dwell on, we become’.
‘It doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty…
Be grateful that you have a glass, and there is something in it…’