Take a second to think about the last time something inconvenient happened to you. How did it make you feel? What other thoughts and emotions did this event stir up? More importantly, how might it have impacted your mood and perceptions the rest of the day?
The way you perceive your life is a major factor to your overall mood and wellbeing. Unfortunately, humans tend to process negative events much more vividly and efficiently than positive events.. The human brain has what’s considered a negativity bias of memory. This means you scan for and preferentially remember negative experiences more easily than positive ones. Difficult experiences, such as work stress, relationship strain, or even global pandemics, are threats to your wellbeing. Although it is important to learn from these threats in order to better prepare us for future events, the brain often over emphasizes these when storing memories, and puts less effort into storing positive and pleasant memories.
Think about it. For much of your day, you may actually feel content, focused, or even pleasant. Our nervous system is always working to keep us regulated, and our bodies are programmed to maintain homeostasis. Despite this, you are much more likely to remember the 10 minutes in which you were agitated with your partner, rather than the flowers that just began to bloom on your street as the spring weather arises.
This happens with implicit memories as well. Implicit memories are the unconscious memories that shape the way you move through the present- your perception of events, your model for relationships, and your general attitude about the world. The negativity bias tends to store memories that may be labeled as negative more readily than pleasant memories. Because of this, you may remember the last time we didn’t get the promotion you wanted, rather than remember the positive review you had at your last review. This gears you to be more cautious in your choices in the present, and may bring up fear, insecurity, and doubt in situations where it isn’t necessary.
Although there are benefits of negative emotions, if you don’t make room and purposefully internalize positive emotions, you may gear yourself up for a life of depression and defeat. In fact, “Even a single episode of depression can reshape circuits of the brain to make future episodes more likely,” (Maletic et al. 2007).
Many people assume the solution to this negativity bias would be suppressing and minimizing negative emotions. This actually causes more harm than good, as negative emotions are a critical part of healthy emotion expression, and suppressing emotions is equivalent to denying reality. Instead, Rick Hanson suggests “Internalizing the Positive” in his book Buddha’s Brain. Here are the simple steps he suggests for this powerful practice:
Turn positive facts into positive experiences.
Great things happen to you every day. You wake up and have blessings all around you. If you take time to notice, it is likely that you have positive experiences with people, places, and nature every hour of every day. Look at an event that you may usually assume to be neutral, such as the barista getting your order right and wishing you a good day. Rather than assuming that this is the expected, allow yourself to bring mindful awareness to this as a positive event, happening to you.
Savor the positive experience.
This is your chance to really notice what positive experiences feel like. Make an effort to focus your mind on the event for several seconds or even a minute. For example, take time to really sense how it feels to be hugged by a loved one. Notice what you sense in your body. When you’re eating your favorite meal, take a moment to identify the tastes and smells that you enjoy so much. Maybe it even brings up joyful memories you have associated with the food. The longer you focus on pleasant experiences, the stronger your neuro-pathways will become, and the clearer the positive experience will be traced into your memory. This will increase the likelihood your brain will register similar events as positive in the future. Increasing the positive experiences will begin to tip the scales of our implicit memory, from negative to positive.
Imagine and feel the experience entering deeply into your mind and body.
When you increase your awareness of how pleasant emotions feel in the body, you can begin to expand the experience even further. When you are physically close to someone you love, your body releases Oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”. Next time you embrace a loved one, Picture the warmth you feel seeping into your body, like the sun’s warmth on your skin. You may practice mentally pairing positive emotions with your breath. For example, feel yourself breathe in joyfulness as your chest expands, and allow yourself to really feel filled up with joy. On your exhale, invite in peace and surrender. This is a place for you to explore your own mind-body connection, and get creative with how you can expand positive emotions in your own body.
The practice of internalizing positive emotions is difficult for many. It is important to note, focusing on the positive doesn’t mean that negative emotions are not painful or detrimental. It takes strength to get through difficult emotions. It also takes strength to focus your attention towards something that may increase healing, and make room for a different experience. If you have trouble with these suggested steps and want to increase your positive mindset, try talking with a professional therapist for support.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain. The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.