Our minds have a natural tendency to focus on danger, which protects us in the moment. And we tend to remember the danger, which protects us in the long run. We are primed to avoid similar risks in the future. This process has priority, because it has survival value. The downside is that pleasant experiences may come and go without receiving the same level of attention, and in time our recollection is more of the negative experiences we’ve had than the positive. Our expectations will become that we will have negative experiences, that we will be endangered and hurt, and we may become more worried, less adventurous, and more risk averse.
This mental tendency that has evolved to keep us safe has the unfortunate effect of making us miserable. Our life experiences are a mix of pleasant and unpleasant events, but if our perception and memory are tilted toward experiencing and remembering the bad more than the good, our overall mood may be inclined toward sadness and anxiety.
To counter the negative bias of our mind, we may need to consciously direct our attention to good experiences and memories. In the book Buddha’s Brain, Rich Hanson and Richard Mendius describe the process of reshaping neural circuits to counter the brain’s tendency to register negative experiences more prominently than the positive. They describe three steps:1 “Turn positive facts into positive experiences…Actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life…Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them and let them affect you.”It is so easy to attend to the bad news, the hurtful memories, the mistakes we’ve made, but when we do, we are forming the landscape of your minds. With predominantly negative thought, our minds become sore and barren. We have the capacity to reconstruct the wiring of our brains by shifting the focus to the pleasant, the joyful, the beautiful, the loving; toward gratitude and compassion. In doing so, we immediately shift the nature of our brain chemistry, which determines the quality of our emotional experience, and we start rewiring our brain cells so that the quality of our future experience is more likely to be benign and more joyful.
2. “Savor the experience…Make it last by staying with it for 5, 10, even 20 seconds.”
3. “Imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body…Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.”
Actively look for positive experiences. Make plans to do pleasant activities. Spend time nurturing your capacity for empathy and gratitude. Stop to appreciate beauty, quality, craftsmanship and other sources of wonder. Talk about what is good. Think about it. Write about it. Savor the goodness.
Reference: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph. D. with Richard Medius, M.D., New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
© 2012 Tom Barrett