Getting the 'good' to stick

Your boss wants to see you in her office. You have no idea what its about. You enter the room where she’s finishing a meeting with two other senior members. Everyone goes quiet, the others pack up their papers and silently shuffle out.  Your boss hasn't looked up or asked you to sit.  

What do you think? If your thoughts automatically jump to a negative scenario, such as "I'm in deep trouble" there's a reason.

It’s evolutionary; we’ve still basically got a stone age brain wanting to protect us from being eaten by a tiger. Being acutely aware of possible threats kept our ancestors alive. It was more important to be able to react to threats than to opportunities. Our brains are wired so we have a trickle of anxiety to protect us and keep us alert.  

This is what’s known as  the ‘negativity bias’, we are much more likely to recall and be influenced by negative experiences than neutral or positive ones. Think of feedback forms - you may get one negative comment to 10 positives, and it’s probably the one negative comment you focus on.

Negative events and emotions affect us more than positive ones. Our mind reacts to ‘negative' experiences much quicker, stronger and more frequently than to ‘good’ or ‘positive’ experiences and remembers them more intensely. 

Dr Rick Hanson describes our brain as like, “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” So although we remember vividly for months a conversation we found toxic, we may forget within a very short time span a conversation we found uplifting.  

I recently attended Dr Hanson’s 'Positive Neuroplasticity Training'. We learnt how to "take in the good" or beneficial experiences to help build our inner strengths and resources. Resources such as resilience, emotional balance, grit, patience, generosity, mindfulness, confidence, feeling cared about, self-understanding and compassion. Given the negativity bias, learning how to use our mind to help encode positive resources into our neural structure is fundamental to wellbeing and our experience of life.  

And it’s really pretty simple. It’s about making a point of noticing and absorbing good facts and experiences, to grow positive resources in the mind so we feel happier and have a greater equilibrium when the ‘bad’ stuff comes.

Rick Hanson teaches a four step strategy to do this which he gives the acronym 'HEAL':

1. Have a beneficial experience. Actively look for good facts and experiences that make you feel good. Really notice them! For example, a compliment from a colleague, a lovely dinner with friends, the beauty of a flower, or the laughter of children at play.

2. Enrich the experience. Savour it, dial up the intensity and enjoy it for at least 10-30 seconds so it starts developing neural structure. Open up to feeling it in your body.

3. Absorb the experience. For example, try soaking it up like water into a sponge, or warming you up like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. Whatever image works for you.

4.  Link the positive to negative material to either soothe it or replace it. You do this by holding both a positive and a negative emotion in your awareness, while making the positive emotion more prominent.  For example you could feel the sense of accomplishment and joy when completing something fun you did well, while feeling apprehensive about a project at work. If you find yourself getting lost in the negative, drop the negative and return to the positive. Linking is an optional step. 

Rick has both a book and an audio walkthrough of the method if you want to find out more.

Focusing our awareness on the good opens us up and expands our thinking. By giving ourselves permission to strengthen positive emotions such as joy, peace, contentment, belonging, compassion and curiosity we build more positive neural networks. It also better resources us to respond to negative emotions and unpleasant experiences. 

As positive psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson points out,

Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase their quantity.