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Your Brain Wants to Be Negative. Teach it Positivity.

The negativity bias developed as a survival mechanism millions of years ago, but it’s still an active component of the human brain to this day.

It’s not widely known, but the human brain is naturally pessimistic. Its default inclination is to be problem and pain-focused.

This doesn’t sound like the formula for a joyful life though, so why would our brains do this?

It’s because we have a built-in negativity bias. In a very literal sense, our brains prefer negativity over positivity.

The negativity bias developed as a survival mechanism millions of years ago, but it’s still an active component of the human brain to this day.

In the best of times, your brain is conditioned to look for the downside in every situation. During times of struggle and uncertainty, this negativity-first tendency gets dialed up even further. Instead of being solution-oriented and optimistic, your brain will likely nudge you to fixate on worst-case scenarios and dangers of every kind.

Try It for Yourself

Meditation · 5-30 mins

Negativity Bias

In this meditation, we'll practice rewiring the brain to savor and appreciate more of the "good" moments in our life, and not endlessly ruminate on the "bad "moments.

Play Now

The brain is wired for negativity. Positivity has to be taught.

Sure, you’ve probably heard this before. Sounds like Positive Psychology 101, doesn’t it?

And it is, but this is one of the basics that bears repeating because the truth is that we aren’t so great at it. Especially when our personal, professional, social, and political lives are inflamed, one of the first things we forget is the necessity of identifying and articulating joy.

Life’s pain, confusion, overwhelm must be acknowledged, but if we don’t balance that with some positive emotions or pleasure, we’re going to get burnt out quickly.

Positive emotions like joy, gratitude, appreciation, or delight aren’t a destination we’ll arrive at after we’ve gone through all the possible difficulties of being human.

Positive emotions are the lifeline that keeps us afloat so we can courageously face our hardships.

So join us right now in a small (but mighty!) activity. There are two steps.

Step One: Identify something you can appreciate.

  • Is there something or someone in the room you’re in that you appreciate?
  • Can you see or hear something that you feel grateful for?
  • Walk outside and look around until you see one beautiful thing.

Filter this moment through the lens of “What could I appreciate right now?”

Even if it’s simply the fact that you’re breathing or a mundane object in your house that makes life convenient, like toilet paper!

Step Two: Say it loud or write it down.

  • What a beautiful __________.
  • I’m grateful for __________.
  • My life is a little bit easier because of __________.
  • I really appreciate __________.

Thinking positive thoughts is itself a wonderful way to balance negative emotions, but when we speak positivity out loud or write it down, it gets doubly reinforced.

Write these thoughts down in a journal. Put a sticky note on your fridge with one thing you appreciate every day. Or share your gratitude by texting it to a loved one.

Thinking positive thoughts is immediately soothing for the nervous system, and then activates the brain to consider even more positive thoughts and emotions - it’s like a happiness waterfall.

We can’t wait for positivity to come find us. We have to actively create it.

Researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has found that when we actively cultivate positive thoughts, we become more creative and more loving. We feel inspired, peaceful, and see more possibilities than we could before. So deliberately prompting your brain to think positive thoughts isn’t just a feel-good exercise - it also delivers a very practical set of benefits.

If you didn’t do the two simple steps above, go back and try them now. Sometimes the simplest mindfulness tools can be some of the most powerful.

This is how we retrain the mind to see that there’s still good in your life, no matter what is happening around you. Keep practicing.

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