"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

How to shake off negative thoughts

By on September 23, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
June Darling

October was always the least dependable of months … full of ghosts and shadows.

Joy Fielding, Canadian novelist

By June Darling

Anna, my six-year-old granddaughter had a great time at Lego camp this year. 

The problem was she didn’t realize it. At least not at first. 

I observed her laughing, running around and being completely immersed in designing new creations. 

Later, when I asked her how things went, she never mentioned those things. Instead she told me about the kid who cheated playing tag and criticized her Lego design.

Anna is not weird in this way of noticing and dwelling on the negative. We all do it, pretty much every day. It’s called the negativity bias. 

The negativity bias, according to researchers, surfaces very early in life, 7-month-old babies begin to pay more attention to negative faces than their 5-month-old counterparts. 

This pull of the negative on our attention, seeing “ghosts and shadows,” and being attracted to threats, continues throughout our lives. 

We can all attest to the truth of this in our own experience. We remember and fret over the criticism we received 30 years ago more than we savor the compliment we got yesterday. 

As Dr. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experience, Teflon for positive ones.”

That just doesn’t seem fair, to over-notice the negative and scary. 

Why is that how we’re wired? Scientists think maybe its how the human brain developed thousands of years ago and was functional in that high-risk environment. Today, however, the negativity bias often makes us unnecessarily unhappy.

We could be more vital and more functional, today, if we could figure out how to turn things around so that our positive experiences were like Velcro and our negative ones like Teflon. Researchers are giving us some ideas.

First, don’t despair that you, like Anna (and me), have this negativity bias. It just is. But do notice it. 

If you want to help your grandchildren live the good life, you may want to help them understand the negativity bias. 

I wasn’t sure how to describe the negativity bias to Anna at the time. But I probably could have said something like, “Have you noticed what things you remember more? Is it when someone says something good about your Lego designs or when they say something bad?” 

And then we could have discussed how funny the brain is to not remember things equally well. We might talk about how the brain could make us unhappy, worried and irritable if we keep thinking about bad things and not noticing good things.

Second, work on re-wiring your brain. Think of a way to get your brain to notice and remember good things. 

One well-researched technique is to write down three good things that happen each day and share them with others. Some use a similar idea by keeping a gratitude journal. 

After I listened to Anna’s bad things, I asked her about anything good that happened. It took awhile for her, and probably takes a while for all of us, to learn to do this well. 

When my other grandchildren are visiting, we often spend the last part of the evening singing a made-up song about everything we did that day.

 After a thorough daily review, it seems easier to remember not only the bad, but also the good. I use this same review of the day for myself, when I can’t immediately remember three good things. 

My husband and I sometimes share three good things or things we’re grateful for at dinner or before we go to bed. We do this particularly if we notice ourselves griping and complaining about our day and lives. 

We are not trying to deny that some bad things may have happened, nor minimize them, we’re just trying to also remember the good as well. We’re trying to make our brains be more fair.

The third way to re-wire our brains is to make the good stuff stickier. 

How we make negative events stick is by dwelling on them and replaying them over and over in our mind. We can do the same thing with positive events. 

Neuropsychologist Hanson recommends taking 20 seconds to really savor the positive event, to visualize it, to think of the sounds, the smells, to vividly implant it in our memory. This one takes the most practice, at least for me and for Anna. 

I am learning to snatch that remarkable azure, autumn sky; to catch the breeze playing with the last Aspen leaves; to sense both the warmth around my well-bundled core as well as the refreshing tingle on my face. Suuuck it in and hooold.

You can experiment with those three ways for dealing with your own negativity bias — noting the negativity bias, seeing the good, and making the good sticky. 

You may find that October is only partly a month of ghosts and shadows, but also one of beauty and considerable opportunities. Bring out the cozy scarves, light the candles, choose a good book, sip hot spiced cider, snuggle in. 

Freed from the grip of your negativity bias, you may realize something delightfully funny. You are already living the good life.

How might you flip your negativity bias, re-wire your brain, and move up to The Good Life this October?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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