Let’s face it: Life can be hard. Our attention is immediately hijacked by what’s negative. Remember the negativity bias I wrote about? We all have it. It’s a necessary quirk of our fallible human design.
One way to think about this inclination to scan for danger is that your brain is more likely to stick to negative experiences like Velcro, while it lets positive experiences slide off like Teflon. It’s funny, how we tend to let the good moment pass us by, right? But it’s that one nudgy negative experience (amidst all the other good stuff) which can really fester. It’s so annoying.
But guess what? We can purposely cultivate positivity in our life.
This is not about replacing the negativity bias with a positivity bias. Yet, we need to practice experiencing more beneficial emotions and states of calm so we can lower the volume on the negative mental states! We need to let the inner critic take a time out so we can do some seriously needed self-care.
Truth be told, it takes some effort and commitment to plug positivity into your daily life. So start to look for those little opportunities each day to highlight a useful or enjoyable experience—and consciously take it into yourself. Take a moment to consider the inner strengths you need the most. Is it confidence, joy, trust, forgiveness, generosity, or patience?
How do you grow inner strengths?
For starters, get grounded in the present moment and become aware of what’s going on. This non-judgmental noticing is key for engaging the mind in beneficial ways. You can think of this as preparing to go on a journey. What are all the things that you need to bring along? What gear or supplies might you need in your “neural backpack.”
Just like learning how to play the guitar or learning a dance routine or excelling at an athletic skill, you need to practice. The brain learns by repetition. Same goes for positive experiences: If you want to cultivate more calm, peace, happiness, and joy in your life, then you need to first experience moments of calm, peace, happiness and joy! Not only that, you must engage in these activities consistently so the brain learns from them and creates new neural highways. Make a plan.
Think of it this way: New connections in your brain are being formed in every moment and through every interaction you have. The more you expose yourself to negative or harmful influences or habits, the more they stick. In the same way, the more you expose yourself to positive things and habits, the more these beneficial experiences stick, and become lasting inner resources. In other words, what you choose to focus on and practice will grow stronger. This means you can influence your own brain on a very deep, cellular level on purpose.
(This is really awesome!)
Noticing the good in your daily life is about increasing what’s already positive OR maintaining what is positive OR creating something new that is positive.
My favorite teacher and psychologist Rick Hanson offers a simple acronym that is easy to remember. H-E-A-L. I teach this all the time with clients because it has been so effective in practice.
Let’s go through each letter.
- H = Have a positive or beneficial experience. Notice a positive experience you are already having; or create one by looking for good facts in your immediate situation, in current or recent events. Now keep in mind, beneficial isn’t synonymous with pleasant!! It’s not about achieving happiness, it’s about promoting wellbeing by noticing and engaging in experiences that are nourishing or uplifting in some way. Beneficial experiences include making or eating a healthy meal, going to bed on time, reading a good book, watching a comedy, getting in a good workout, having unstructured play, meeting a friend for coffee, volunteering, or having a hobby, or noticing things in the lives of others that you feel glad about. You are producing good facts to hook onto.
- E = Extend or enrich it. Stay with the positive experience by noticing the sensations and imagery associated with that great meal or a good workout or that kind friend whose shoulder you cried on. Really sense and embody it to make it more lasting and intense. Activating such positive experiences helps to build up inner resources (or traits) like connection, resilience, emotional balance, happiness, mindfulness and compassion. Savor it. Don’t let those good moments pass you by.
- A = Absorb it. Intentionally let the good experience sink into you. Here you really want to take it in, in a way that seeps into you. You are installing it into your memory bank and making it sticky. Kind of like creating a mental snapshot or inner Instagram of a beautiful sunset with the intention of remembering it.
- L = Link the positive and the negative. Or, I like to say it’s like making lemonade from lemons. We all have negative experiences in daily life, like getting a bad grade or being rejected. There’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about this. It just means that you are a normal human being. Remember though, that as long as negative stuff is active in your mind, it starts to stick the longer you dwell on it. So in this optional linking step, see if you can hold BOTH the positive and negative in awareness (the sweet and the sour), so that the positive gradually eases and brings perspective to what is negative, can soothe it, and maybe even replace the negative over time.
Of course, with anything that’s really tough or triggering, like trauma, it’s helpful to work with a counselor. But in general, everyday life offers up situations or chances to practice these steps.
Sometimes I suggest creating an “even though” statement:
Even though she rejected my invitation, it took courage to get up the nerve to ask her out, and I’m proud of myself for trying. I’ve been taking more risks and that’s good for a shy person like me. Come to think of it, that took some guts!
Even though getting a bad grade really is hard and I’m disappointed, it’s not the end of my college career. Deep down I know I’m going to be ok. I’m glad I’m doing other things. I really feel inspired by the new club project. I feel like I can make an impact.
Even though I feel sad about grandma’s passing, I can sense her love for me; and when I remember her humor it makes me smile. I feel she’s got my back and I can draw on this warm feeling whenever I need.
Remember, what you choose to focus on and practice will grow stronger. That means you can have a bigger influence in responding positively to your life than you might believe. Just like you can’t unlearn how to ride a bike, you won’t unlearn the inner strengths you grow over time.
This is one of the kindest things you can do for yourself. So start taking in the good.