By Dr. Randy Borum
Article first appears in Black Belt Magazine, January, 2008, pp. 48-50)
What generates the strongest feelings for you – the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat? According to brain scientists, the human brain is essentially “hard wired” to be negative. Numerous studies have shown that the electrical (neural) connections in your brain are stronger and faster when they are responding to something unpleasant than when responding to something neutral or pleasant.
Might this provide a scientific explanation for why “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”? And why does the brain behave like that? And can we do anything about it? All very reasonable questions. Science provides some insights and possibilities.
Many scientists believe that this negativity bias comes from evolutionary adaptation. The idea is that a long time ago (roughly between twelve thousand and two million years ago) as the human species was beginning to emerge, the world was a tough and dangerous place with devastating weather events as big parts of the earth were frozen under glaciers interspersed with floods. Those humans who survived were the ones whose brains alerted and protected them from the hazards. Those would be our ancestors. That’s the theory anyway.
To be a bit more practical, the consequences of responding too slowly or insufficiently to danger are often more dramatic and hazardous than responding slowly to a neutral or positive stimulus. In a way, the negative brain is trying to protect us by prioritizing what it looks for, how it evaluates information, and how it urges us to act. It does this automatically, and often without our conscious awareness. When presented simultaneously with something negative, neutral and positive - the brain will naturally focus on the negative almost every time. This essentially means that worry is our brain’s default state and that negative emotions will “trump” the positive ones. Well, that explains a lot doesn’t it?
Now that you have read the bad news, perhaps no amount of good news will bring back your previously cheerful state…but I’ll try. One of the most remarkable features of the human brain is its ability to learn and adapt. You can take advantage of this knowledge to create what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “Learned Optimism” or the optimal state of experience that Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply calls “flow.”
We have the ability to change our own level of happiness – up or down - and to facilitate within ourselves a positive and perhaps optimal mental and emotional climate. Some scientists suggest that each of us has our own individual “set point” of happiness or positivity, and that maybe as much as half of that is genetically determined. But regardless of our natural tendencies and predispositions, nearly all psychology researchers would agree that we can change our “state” of positivity.
How do you do it? First, you need to recognize that optimism is a choice. You are going to have to take some responsibility for what you attend to, what you ruminate about and how you respond to it. It may not come naturally at first, but the more you do it, the more you will amplify those positive pathways in the brain and to mute the negative ones.
Positive psychology researchers often talk about three components of happiness. The first is to “get more pleasure out of life.” Find and appreciate what is positive and pleasurable as you go through life each day and savor it. If something delights your senses or makes you smile or laugh or feel interested – pause and pay attention to it while enjoying the pleasurable feelings that it brings. Feeling gratitude and being thankful can also foster positive feelings. The second component is to become more “engaged” in whatever you are doing. Too often when training or doing a kata, it is easy to mentally disengage and just go through the motions. Instead try to focus on and experience what you are doing without any other distraction. Don’t think too much or over-analyze, just experience what you are doing in the moment. The third component of happiness rests in finding ways to make your life feel more meaningful. Seligman suggests that you take inventory of your own strengths (such as courage, compassion, humor) and look for new ways to use them to achieve your goals or to help others.
Over the next week, consider trying (and writing down) these easy and practical steps to nudge your negative brain. Get a piece of paper for each day of the week. You don’t have to write a narrative just jot a quick note to yourself about the following five things:
• Write one blessing or thing in your life (or that happened that day) for which you are thankful.
• Write one thing you noticed during the day that brought you pleasure.
• Identify one person who you are grateful and happy to have in your life. Take a minute to think about why. Consider telling that person what you appreciate about him or her.
• Do something nice for someone, whether a friend or a stranger.
• Take one to two minutes to breathe deeply and allow all your muscles to relax. Focus only on your breathing.
You might find that being happy, positive or optimistic is hard work..at least at first. But it is well worth the effort. Mute the negative and amplify the positive.