Our natural instinct as humans is to focus on the bad things that we find around us, which creates a negativity bias. This is said to have developed through evolution so that our brains were easily aware of threats, which is really important when an aggressive animal or opposing community of people often means death. Yet, in today’s world, danger isn’t looming around every corner. Without the survival need to be able to quickly recognize threats, our negativity bias has a big unnecessary impact on our lives. We are primed to focus on our partner acting a little off, the endless stressful emails, or the grocery store not having the marinara that we were looking for, rather than all the little good moments that happen throughout the day. This colors our memories and impacts our moods.
The good news is that our brains don’t have to be set in this pattern forever. Neuroplasticity allows our brains to change and adapt. Meaning, if we intentionally focus on the positive things surrounding us, our brains will eventually follow that lead and create the habit of noticing the positives rather than immediately sticking on the negatives. This path can lead us to focus on moments like how nice it was that our partner went out and got the mail, the connection that we made with a coworker during that morning’s meeting, or how ripe and tasty the strawberries look that we picked up from the grocery store. Letting moments of joy take up space in our minds more often than the moments of stress or disappointment changes our days for the better. So, how do we get to that point?
Changing a mindset isn’t ever going to be a flip of the switch. In most cases, there are decades that have gone into creating and reinforcing our negativity bias. Yet, the fact that it’s possible to change our brains towards empowerment makes it a worthy pursuit. As cliché as it may sound, a great place to start is to cultivate a gratitude practice. There has been research done on the positive effects of gratitude. Being intentional with it can help make that shift of focus, but it’s important to find how it can fit into your life. A gratitude journal might work best if you enjoy creating lists or writing. Checking in with a partner or a friend at the end of the day and recounting the three things you’re most grateful for might be good if you’re looking for more social connection in your life. Even just checking in with yourself, listing the things you're most grateful for in your head, can be a good step in altering your mindset. No matter which practice you pick, the most important part is that you set a schedule for when you’re going to follow through with your new practice. Whether it’s everyday, every week, or every month, choose the days and times that you will commit to focusing on gratitude. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss days, just focus on jumping back into the practice, altering when you do it if the original plan no longer works with your schedule.
Meditation is another practice that will be very beneficial on this journey. Setting aside time to focus on awareness of the present moment will start to leak into the rest of your life. Slowly, you’ll notice moments of more presence throughout the day, even when you didn’t intentionally sit down to meditate. This increased awareness will give you the chance to realize what types of things you’re focused on and the thoughts you’re having. If you’re stuck on a negative event or thought, just noticing it can help neutralize the situation. Then, past that, you can intentionally shift the focus. Frustration due to a long line for coffee can be shifted towards appreciation that you, along with all the people in line, will be able to enjoy a nice cup of coffee that morning, and the business seems to be doing well. Negative self talk after something goes wrong can be shifted to compassion towards yourself for doing the best you could and gratitude for the growth that could come out of this experience. It can be helpful to think of the negative voice in your head as a different person that you have to lovingly correct with a more positive perspective. Ultimately, these shifts require conscious awareness, which meditation can help with, and the more often we make them, the more often our neuroplasticity has a chance to help us create new habits.