Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative. If our boss tells us five things we are doing wonderfully at work but mentions one area we need to improve upon, or our partner consistently compliments our appearance but one day comments that a certain outfit is not flattering, we zero in on the negative. Often, one less-than-positive comment can sink our entire mood. This negativity bias evolved in the human brain to help our ancient ancestors focus on threat and increase their chances of survival. However, focusing on the negative can hinder us in the modern world, which is why it is so important for us to train our brains to start thinking positively.
What does thinking positively entail?
Thinking positively simply means taking a more optimistic approach to life. It means choosing to focus on the positive over the negative and remaining hopeful rather than despondent. When life presents challenges, we meet them with a more confident and productive attitude.
What are the benefits of thinking positively?
Studies show that positive thinking is good for both our mental and physical health. According to the Mayo Clinic, the health benefits of positive thinking may include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Thinking positively simply makes us feel better. We have more self-confidence when we focus on things we actually like about ourselves rather than narrowing in on all of our self-criticisms. Thinking positively helps keep us out of negative thinking patterns, such as rumination that can lead to more self-hatred and depression.
Why is thinking positively so challenging?
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, neuroscientist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, our brains process positive stimuli very differently from negative stimuli. Hanson explains the brain is like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
The amygdala, which is like an alarm system in our brains, “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news,” Hanson writes. “Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.” In order for positive events and experiences to hold up to equally intense negative ones, we need to purposely focus on them for much longer.
Furthermore, our brains get used to certain patterns of thought. So, the more negatively we think, the more automatic the process of thinking negatively becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to break out of that pattern and start thinking positively.
How to Wire Your Brain to Think More Positively
Take time to “take in the good”
Spend more time soaking up positive experiences. Remember that your brain doesn’t automatically store positive stimuli in your long-term memory, so you need to give it a boost.
Dr. Hanson suggests that when you have a good experience, no matter how mild it may be, “try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.” This process helps strengthen positive thinking patterns in your brain. The more you practice savoring positive moments and taking in the good, the easier it will become for you to think positively.
So, if there’s a nice moment between you and a loved one, take 10-30 seconds to bask in the glow of the warm feelings. If you notice a particularly beautiful sunset on your walk or drive home, take a few extra moments to drink it in. If you happen upon a blooming garden, literally stop and smell the roses. By taking the time to soak up pleasant experiences, you are rewiring your brain to be more positive.
Write down what you are grateful for
Gratitude offers us a reliable path to positivity. If you are feeling down or negative in your life, take a few minutes to write down a few things you are grateful for.
Studies have found that gratitude is linked to greater happiness, better health and more optimism and positive emotions. According to Robert Emmons of the Greater Good Science Center, gratitude allows us to celebrate the present, blocks toxic, negative emotions, makes us more resilient, and increases our feelings of self-worth. Gratitude is like a muscle; the more you utilize it, the stronger it gets.
There are many effective gratitude practices. For instance, you can keep a gratitude journal or a gratitude jar, where you write down one to five things you are grateful for each day. Emmons suggests that writing occasionally (once or twice a week) in more depth may be more effective than writing short, daily lists. He also suggests that you “get personal” and focus your gratitude on people rather than things.
Don’t get caught up in self-criticism
One of the biggest obstacles to thinking positively is the Critical Inner Voice. We all have an inner critic that loves nothing more than criticizing our every move. This inner critic can lead us into a spiral of shame or self-hatred.
Ruminating on negative thoughts about ourselves, or others, only strengthens the neural pathways for negative thinking. In order to retrain our brains to think positively, we must stand up to our inner critics and not indulge in self-attacks.
If you notice yourself thinking negatively about yourself, interrupt the thought by saying something more positive. For example, if you think something like “I’m so stupid. I definitely failed that job interview.” You could interrupt the thought by saying to yourself, “I’m not stupid. I put myself out there and tried my hardest. Even if I don’t get this job, I’m still okay.”
You can read all about how to overcome your inner critic here.
Thinking positively doesn’t mean that you have to love yourself all the time. Rather, you should strive to see yourself compassionately and treat yourself with the same kindness and respect that you would offer to a friend.
According to self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, there are three key components for practicing self-compassion:
1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.
2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.
3) Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience and something we all share.
Taking a more compassionate attitude to yourself, especially when you are struggling can help you sustain a positive attitude toward yourself.
You can find self-compassion exercises on Dr. Kristen Neff’s website.
Avoid negative/cynical people
The people we spend our time with can have a big impact on us. When we hang around friends, family, or coworkers who are caught up in a negative mindset, their attitude can rub off on us. When talking with someone who is cynical about the world, complaining about their job, or gossiping about a mutual acquaintance, it is easy to naturally slip into those negative conversational patterns and begin to feel more critical ourselves.
If you notice yourself feeling bad after spending time around certain people, try to limit the amount of time you spend with them. Or try to shift your conversations with them to more positive or neutral topics. (Note: this doesn’t mean not being there for a friend who is going through a hard time. There is a difference between talking openly about something painful or a personal struggle and simply complaining about life and being cynical.)
It is equally important to notice when you feel particularly good after spending time with certain people. Give these positive relationships more importance in your life.
According to Dr. Lisa Firestone, “Practicing generosity is a mental health principle, and it could be the very key to a happy and healthy life.” Being generous is a natural confidence booster, as we often like ourselves the most when we are being kind and giving to others.
Generosity also fosters feelings of community and interconnectedness. As Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie of the Greater Good Science Center explain, “When we give to others, we don’t only make them feel closer to us; we also feel closer to them.”
One of the sweetest forms of thinking positively is the contemplation of doing something nice for someone else.