“Stop and smell the roses” is more than a good reminder. It’s good science.
Our brains use more neurons to detect negative experiences than positive, and install them into long-term memory much more quickly. The reason? Evolution. In an interview with The Atlantic, Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, explains it was vital for early humans to learn from dangers such as predators or storms. You could go a few days without a positive event like finding food or mating, he says, but if you did not avoid the predator, you died today. Over thousands of years, that “negativity bias” was hard-wired into our genes.
It’s still important to learn from negative experiences, but there aren’t many saber-toothed tigers left. The main “threats” we face today are unpleasant human interactions and stresses like deadlines and traffic jams. Animals are wired to react quickly to threats, then return to a relaxed state. This is where you want to spend most of your life, Hanson says, but if your brain feels constantly under attack by minor-to-moderate stresses, it takes a toll on your physical and emotional health.
That’s why it’s so important to seek out the positive, to level the playing field. It’s easy to see the negative everywhere (for example, there are far more negative words in the dictionary than positive). The more positive experiences you put in your brain, the better prepared you will be to weather the conflicts, losses and disappointments that are modern life’s most common “threats.”
Here are four simple strategies, including tips from The FISH! Philosophy, to add to your brain’s positive balance sheet:
- Savor the positive. It’s said that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” When you have a positive experience, hold on to it. Our brains take in positive impressions all day but they are often fleeting—a sunset, a smile. To ingrain that feeling into long-term memory, take 20 to 30 seconds to savor it. It’s easy to obsess for hours or days about conflicts and problems; to provide some balance, you have to consciously dwell on the day’s small but satisfying moments.
- Nurture relationships. Studies show healthy relationships need at least a 5-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions. Be There for your coworkers, loved ones and strangers. Find ways to Make Their Day. Share moments of laughter and Play. Acts of kindness, encouragement and support not only help others, Hanson says they help you stay in the relaxed state that’s necessary for good health.
- Build awareness. Pay attention to the situations that trigger your negative emotions. Don’t try to ignore the reaction. Be aware of it and own it. Once you have accepted it, examine it. Is the problem really as bad as you think? Are you considering all sides of the situation? Imagine a friend is experiencing the problem you’re going through. What would you say to help them deal with it most productively? Be There for yourself and take your own advice.
- Be intentional. Psychologists say about a third of our personal traits are inborn and two thirds are formed through experience. Even if you’ve been raised to see the world a certain way, Hanson says with practice you can retrain your brain to respond to life’s challenges in a way that is more resilient and “even-keeled.” You can Choose Your Attitude, in other words. Focus daily on who you want to “be”, and what you need to do to be that person. The FISH! Philosophy will help you make life better for everyone around you. That feels good. With a little effort you can plant that satisfaction permanently. Your neurons will thank you.