How to Retrain Your Brain to Be Happy
Last week I had one of THOSE days. I suspect this happens to you too. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, aware of a low level agitation that had me scowling. Ahead of me was a long commute to have a difficult conversation with a colleague and I was dreading both. Heavy rain pounded the window sill. Walking toward the coffee maker I discovered that my beloved cat had thrown up in the hallway. You get the idea.
According to social scientists you and I have between 12,000-60,000 thoughts per day (depending on how you categorize a “thought”) and 80% of those thoughts bend toward the negative. This is known as a “negative bias.”
Why the Negative Dominates
“Over and over,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, says, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.”
For our ancestors, it was a matter of life and death to keep their eyes peeled for the saber-toothed tiger but most of us will never face that type of danger. Negative bias is a relic from our evolution that we can now play an intentional roll in shifting. In the spirit of being happy, productive and current with what is going on in present time, we can retrain your brains.
Thanks to the scientifically proven phenomenon of neuroplasticity, we can intentionally change our brains by training our attention, in this case to focus on how amazing life is. I don’t know any better way to do this than being mindful and grateful, on purpose.
Gratitude is one of the two things that helped me shift my perspective that day.
I have a regular gratitude practice (that I combine with meditation). After I sit in silence I write down a minimum of 5 things that I am grateful for and why I am grateful for them. (I went into more detail about this practice in last week’s post.)
It takes 20 seconds for the brain to register a positive thought and create fresh neuropathways. So make a point to see, notice, talk about, and write about what is working in your life. Doing this gives you greater access to the full range of your intellect. It’s good for your personal well-being, and it’s good for business. (More on that in a minute.)
Consider this practice good emotional hygiene that tips the scales of your negative inheritance. There is always something to be grateful for, even if you’re having a tough day:
- If you stub your toe, be grateful you have two good feet.
- If you have a long commute, be grateful you can afford a car and the gas to fill its tank.
- If your kid gets sick, be grateful for your pediatrician.
- If your boss micro-manages your projects, be grateful for the reminder of how that feels so you can avoid doing it to your team.
Gratitude has helped me and my clients become “realistic optimists.” That’s different from being a Pollyanna Gratitude Zombie. It means telling yourself the most empowering story you can about the personal or professional situation in front of you, without denying or ignoring all of the (real or imagined) factors that are potential barriers to success.
AND, it’s also good for business. . . as reported in the New York Times, Mario Losada, a researcher, studied some 60 business teams and found that the ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1. In medium performing teams it was 1.9 to 1 and in low performing teams it was .36 to 1, meaning three negative comments for every positive one.
The first step of my Honorable Closure Process (Telling the Old Story in a New Way) depends on gratitude. I’ve watched many clients experience a completely new relationship with a major life event when they looked for the unexpected positive outcomes that came from the completion. Only mature, responsible people can look deeply, beyond the obvious hurt and hassles to see what is working in life. And if you practice this every day, in the mundane moments when you are simply feeling cranky, then you’re much better equipped to do it when the chips are down.
Like all practices, this one gets easier with time as your brain resets its default and you begin to notice all the ways that ‘the world is conspiring in your favor.” (Paulo Coelho),
Now I’d like to hear from you , dear Reader, . . . what practices work well for you when you wish to shift out of a negative mindset? Comment on my Facebook page.