Get ready to say goodbye to the negative thinking treadmill and hello to a welcome cycle of happiness and peace.
This week focusing on why you have negative thoughts to begin with. You’re going to learn how and why you’re hard-wired to focus on the bad stuff and then I’m going to teach you two easy-to-use, effective tips to turn off your internal Negative Nelly (or at least mute her) and turn on your Positive Patty.
You’ve Got to Really Understand How and Why You’re Built
As I’ve mentioned before, we’re running on what’s now faulty hardwiring that we haven’t evolved past yet. Because, relatively, we’re very new here.
So, the Earth is about 3.5 to 4 billion years old, mammals started showing up about 200 million years ago, then the first primates came around 60 million years ago and little old Homo Sapiens (that’s pretty much us) have only been here about 200,000 years.
Yup, we’ve practically just showed up when you put us in context.
As you likely know, our human ancestors lived in small hunting-gathering groups. It wasn’t common to meet strangers and, when they did, it was often dangerous or deadly. On average, about one in eight men died in conflicts between groups back then compared to one in 100 men who died in the 1900s in war.
We Learned Quickly to Focus on the Bad, Instead of the Good
Author and neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, uses a great metaphor when talking about this topic: carrots and sticks. Carrots were the pleasurable or good things we had access to way back when: things like having sex, killing an animal to make for dinner or finding water when we were thirsty. Carrots are great but, if you miss one, another opportunity will likely come along.
Sticks were all the bad things in our environment. Mainly, things that could kill us. If you missed one of those, you were dead. No more carrots. No more anything.
So, over the course of millions of years of evolution, we learned to pay extra attention to the sticks so we didn’t die. We learned to react to sticks quicker, be more sensitive to sticks and to feel more intensity with sticks than we did with carrots. As Hanson says in Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “Your brain has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive.” So, the brain evolved to have a strong negativity bias.
Believe it or not, even when you’re feeling calm or happy, your brain still scans for threats and possible danger. Here’s the big problem with that. To your brain, life and death threats (the only kinds it knows) include:
- Arguments with your partner
- A disagreement with your sibling
- Thinking about a coworker who seems to be doing better than you on a project
- Any disappointment or frustration
- The idea of someone taking something from you (like your partner, credit for something, or actually something physical)
And the list goes on and on! Just yesterday there were likely a dozen things that your brain thought were life and death (like that annoyance you felt when your partner asked if you’d gotten around to calling the plumber yet).
Even when you’re calm, there’s a subtle anxiety, worry, unease or feeling of separation from others.
The ratios have been around awhile for positive to good actions. In marriages it’s 5:1 and, in general life it’s at least 3:1. Meaning that, in your life in general, for every 3 positive things that happen, it takes only one negative thing to cancel those positive gains out. In your relationship that goes up to five positives for every one time you screw up (likely because of our higher expectations for our love partners).
Because of the way we’ve evolved, our brains respond more intensely to yucky things than to equally happy things, meaning the bad carries more weight than the good. Think about it, if someone you admire does something wrong, it could completely undo all your feelings and trust in that person. However, if someone you don’t like does something good, you’ll notice it but it won’t completely revamp how you think about that person. More likely you’ll think, “well, that was good what they did, but I’m not sure if it makes them a good person.” But, when someone you like and trust does that one bad thing, you’ll remember it longer, hold a grudge or even end the relationship. The bad takes over so much more, relatively, than the good.
There are basically three parts in your brain responsible for all this overreaction:
Here’s how they work together: Let’s say you’re having an argument with a friend and you feel anxious or upset about it…
- Your friend being angry with you, pointing out a mistake you made or criticizing you feels like a lion trying to attack you to your brain (it doesn’t know the difference between a real emergency and an unpleasant situation – it treats everything like an emergency because of your non-evolved hard-wiring). So, your friend’s upset activates your amygdala which triggers an alarm in your head and the fight/flight/freeze response.
- This alarm from your amygdala signals the hypothalamus and your sympathetic nervous system. So, your hypothalamus sends out a call for stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Your heart beats faster, your stomach drops out, you feel shaky, you don’t want to eat and you might even start to sweat.
- Your hippocampus tracks what happened (what your friend said, what you said, and your feelings) and consolidates all this into a memory that you can learn from for future issues.
The Snowball Effect
Over the course of your life, each negative experience you catalogue, ruminate over and think about makes your amygdala even more sensitive to anything negative. Remember all those stress hormones that are now activated from the hypothalamus? Well, now these are flowing into your system and strengthening and stimulating your amygdala! So, that fire alarm in your brain will now go off more easily and get louder and louder!
As if this isn’t bad enough, that cortisol (stress hormone/neurotransmitter) in your brain overstimulates the cells in your hippocampus which weakens and eventually kills them! This means that your hippocampus starts to shrivel and shrink!
You care about a smaller hippocampus because this is the part of your brain that puts things into perspective and also calms down your amygdala so it’ll stop triggering the hypothalamus to signal all those stress hormones.
The result? It’s harder to have a “realistic” perspective and everything seems like it’s going to hell. It becomes much harder to see the good happening and you basically end up seeing the world through poop-stained lenses! You end up feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, overwhelmed, and certain of impending doom. And feeling all this makes you more vulnerable and susceptible to feeling it again tomorrow, even more intensely. YIKES!!
Why We Always Think the Worst
The relatively slow pace of evolution, once again, bites us in the ass when it comes to why we tend to think the worst.
Picture yourself 100,000 years ago waking up and walking out of your hut. There were two things you would do:
- Look for a tiger about to pounce on you
- Not look for a tiger about to pounce on you
The folks that didn’t look for a tiger about to pounce aren’t here anymore so you are not related to them. However, you’re a descendant from the folks that did look for a tiger every time they left their hut, so paranoia is built into your genes.
Here’s the problem. The vast majority of the time, your ancestor looked for a tiger there wasn’t one! But they evolved to keep looking because, if you missed it just once, you were dead. This fear of a possible threat that you always have to be ready for is one of the ways the negativity bias is hard-wired into your modern-day brain.
Your default setting, therefore, is to overestimate threats while you underestimate your resources and opportunities! There’s even a part of your amygdala that prevents you from unlearning fear, especially anything from your childhood.
As Rick Hanson says, “As a result, we end up preoccupied by threats that are actually smaller or more manageable than we’d feared, while overlooking opportunities that are actually greater than we’d hoped for.” He calls it “paper tiger paranoia.”
The Bad vs the Good
Because of how our amazing brains have evolved for survival, distressing, uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences are burned into your memory very quickly (unlike positive stuff). You remember something you dislike more than what you like. You learn faster from a pain than from a gain. You can easily lose trust with a friend or partner but then it’s much harder to regain that trust. Basically, you’ll remember something bad about another person or situation more than you will something good.
This would all be well and good BUT, there are three reasons that good stuff doesn’t stick with us. Unless something happens that’s super intense, brand new or very different, it doesn’t have staying power in our brains:
- You overlook good stuff because your brain is so busy trying to either avoid the bad stuff or fix problems (real or imaginary)
- When you do notice something good, you don’t feel it. In other words, it’s a fact, not an experience. With no strong emotion attached, it doesn’t get hard-wired in the same way. You’ll finish that big project at work finally, but then you move on to the next thing (that you’ve already been stressing about) without acknowledging in a real way the big accomplishment you just had. (I see you)! I remember when my kids were babies and I got that first smile or giggle. It filled my heart to bursting! These days, if I don’t stop to think about it, I let all those laughs and smiles move by with hardly a second thought.
- Unless you consciously stop and savor a good experience, it gets stored in the brain the same way as when you remember to take out the trash. It doesn’t help shape your brain or lay down strong neural networks or memories.
All this month we’ll be working on turning your “natural” tendencies around. I’m taking the time to teach you this so you understand that you REALLY need to be diligent with new behaviors and habits but that you absolutely can turn around your negative thinking and become a positivity generating machine!
Here are two tips to make it happen!
Tip #1: Turn Fine into a Feeling
Your negativity bias is heavily weighted towards your survival but, in doing so, it is also weighted heavily against a good quality of life. Your physical brain is engineered to keep you away from peace and calm.
The best thing you can do to shift your brain towards good mental health and a fulfilling life is to regularly take in the good stuff. Consistently and repeatedly taking in the positive experiences will make your brain “stickier” for good stuff. This, in turn, will increase the amount of positive things you “see” which will make your brain even stickier for fabulousness!
Getting into a “good” mental state isn’t enough. You need to install it by resting your mind there and savoring it.
It’s way easier than you realize to find something good to savor. The issue is that there are good things all around you at a given moment but you’ve been bypassing them. Right now, at this very moment, I want you to look around yourself for something that’s beautiful, smells good or is appealing in some way.
- If you’re listening to me right now, maybe this information helps you feel more calm and reassured
- If you’re sitting in your home maybe there’s something on a shelf that, if you really noticed it again, makes you feel happy or comforted (why did you save those seashells from your last vacation and put them on your bookshelf unless it was to remind you of something happy?)
- If you’re outside, you might smell something wonderful if you took a moment to notice like the jasmine from the trellis on your neighbor’s house or the smell of cinnamon from that bakery down your block
You’re not looking for anything epic. Just something that you like in some way that has likely become like the wallpaper in your life – you just don’t notice it anymore. We’re going to turn ordinary or neutral things, things that are “fine,” into positive feelings so new, affirming memories are installed into your brain.
By doing this you start to take your skewed negativity bias and even out the playing field (and eventually stack the deck towards a calm, happy state of mind).
Tip #2: Think About What Didn’t Go Wrong
We think we know, but we don’t. We’re so sure we can see into the future, but we can’t.
I was driving in my car the other day and I was behind a slow car that I felt was making me late (yeah, yeah, I’m a classic NY driver living in crunchy Berkeley, California, so you can imagine my issues behind the wheel. Don’t other people have somewhere they need to be? Is everyone just on a Sunday drive, aimlessly wandering?! Doesn’t anyone else know that they have a blinker and should use it when they’re making a turn?! (“It’s called a blinker!” has been many a rant when I’m in my car cursing other drivers). And don’t get me started on that person who comes on the highways, cuts across four lanes of traffic to get into the far left lane and then promptly slows to 60 miles per hour! Sigh.
One of the tools I use so that I don’t become completely homicidal (I’d look terrible in an orange jumpsuit) is to think about what didn’t go wrong. Really.
So, that Prius in front of me (why is it always a Prius with that bumper sticker for KPFA, Obama or telling me to coexist – and no, the irony of that last one is not lost on me) going 11 miles an hour (yes, I’m petty and looked repeatedly at my speedometer) in a 30 mile per hour zone might have helped me avoid an accident.
I mean, if the Prius (OK, it also could’ve been a Subaru Outback with those stick figure family stickers on the back) hadn’t been in front of me, maybe I would have gotten to that next intersection faster and someone might have run the light and crashed into my car! Or, if I had been going faster, maybe some little kid would’ve been chasing his ball into the street and (oh, I can’t even think about that one)!
When I do this in my mind, I immediately feel more relaxed and, every now and then, I even have a smile and good feelings for that Prius driver.
I want to give you one more excellent example of this that just happened last week. I was speaking with one of my clients, we’ll call her Gabriella.
Gabriella is a 25-year-old young woman suffering from major anxiety and issues with alcohol. In her Freshman year in college she met a man (we’ll call him Fred) who was really bad for her. She ended up in an abusive, toxic relationship with him and her drug and alcohol use spiraled.
It all became so bad that she ended up dropping out of college and spent the next few years in some form of treatment.
Her life was completely side-tracked from what she thought it would be. Gabriella comes from a great home with educated, successful parents and a brother who has done well. She’s looking to go back to complete her degree but knows that this might be hard given her age and stage. Trying to fit in with 18-year-olds fresh out of high school is going to be challenging. How to make friends? What about all the partying that normally happens in college?
As you might imagine she now has major regrets. “I wish I’d never met Fred. Things would’ve turned out so differently if I’d just done school and made normal friends. Probably none of this would’ve happened.”
This is the problem with regrets. We don’t think about the bad things that could’ve happened or how something that seems bad could have changed your life for the better! I said to her,
“Maybe meeting Fred and all that’s happened was actually a good thing in the end. Let me give you an alternate story to your life. Let’s say you never met Fred and you stayed in school and finished your degree in business which you ended up really hating, especially since you weren’t that keen on it to begin with but went for because nothing else was grabbing you.
You finally get out of school, but now you get a job IN A FIELD YOU HATE! You can’t go do anything else because your parents are saying, “We spent all this money on your education, you can’t throw it away!” And you’re thinking, “I just spent all these years studying business, I can’t start all over now!”
So, you go into business and hate your job for years. It makes sense to me that at this point, you’d definitely start drinking and/or doing drugs to escape this miserable life you feel trapped in. Then you’d get married to a man who’s no good for you (who’s attracted to a using alcoholic) and maybe even have a kid or two thinking that would make your life feel better. Before you know it, you’re 40 years old and in rehab having REAL regrets. Now you really feel trapped and see no way out of this life you’ve built. Maybe you even stay unhappy the rest of your life because you keep thinking it’s too late to “start again.”
Now, here you are at 25 with no actual mess (no divorces, kids to worry about, mortgage or bankruptcy). You can now choose a path instead of just doing the next thing. You can try some different jobs and see what feels good and go from there.”
The point is, you don’t know, even when you think you do. So, thinking about what could have gone wrong that didn’t is a great way to shift out of regret, negative thinking and gain a new, more positive perspective on where you are now.
There’s almost nothing better for you than taking a few minutes each day to set your day on the right track! You want to start off on your best foot, so I’ve created this Meditation Starter Kit. You just need 3 minutes to start your day – that’s it! Just 3 minutes to start the positive momentum of a great day!