by James Garrett
Positivity is not a given. It’s an investment.
Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, my six-year-old pigtail-braided daughter and I had just finished having an amazing time at the county fair. We rode on “the big kid rides,” she won a stuffed animal, and multiple times we were offered free tickets.
After a clear win of an evening, we were walking back to the car when she said with all the angst of a six-year-old, “Daddy, we didn’t get to ride on the spinning wheel.” At this point it was 11:05 PM, the fair was closed, I’d dropped more money than I’d wanted to, and I was feeling – well, you know how I was feeling. Every parent has been there.
But not every parent has considered the curious brain logic of why this happens. You see, the brain, for all of its strengths, is pulled toward the negative like a bug to a lantern. Negativity simply feels irresistible. Our brains tend to pay more attention to, believe, and filter for more negative information than positive information, something scientists call the “negativity bias.”
So why is positivity an investment? Because in the same way that you have to invest in rocket fuel to push a rocket out of Earth’s gravitational field, you have to invest in positivity fuel to push your brain out of the “negativity field.” Another way of saying this is that negativity comes naturally, but positivity takes work. Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. – the world’s foremost expert on positive emotions – sums it up well: “Positivity is fragile.”
So how do you make positivity anti-fragile? How do you flip the switch and turn your negativity bias into a positivity bias? How do you train your brain to filter the good? Here are three science-backed strategies.
1. Elevate Your Endorphins
Exercise is one of the most readily available sources of happiness. According to leading happiness researcher Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside, “Aerobic exercise was just as effective at treating depression as was Zoloft.” In fact, she continues, “Exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.” That’s amazing, but perhaps what isn’t as well known is why. Your body has naturally occurring “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins that can actually be turned up or turned down. Exercise is one of the best ways to organically turn your endorphins up.
In addition to boosting your mood, exercise also has the added benefit of increasing self-confidence. Psychologists call this confidence self-efficacy, and it fuels your motivation to stick to your goals even when the going gets tough.
2. Savor the (Positive) Flavor
We all have positive experiences every day. While our life might seem like a blur of stressful demands, if you ask yourself the question, “What went well today?” (instead of “What do I still have on my to-do list?”), you’ll start training your brain to filter for the good. What’s more, you’ll start building the skill of savoring.
UC Berkeley Professor Rick Hanson recommends that whenever you have a positive emotion, don’t just let it pass through you unnoticed. Take 10 seconds to enjoy it, amplify it, and let it sink into you. In other words, savor and relish that positive emotion.
Hanson says that “your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” The key, then, is to retrain your brain to be like Velcro for the positive experiences and Teflon for the negatives ones. Savoring for just 10 seconds is a good way to start rewiring your brain to switch from the negative to the positive.
3. Make Moments Mindful
People find lots of reasons not to meditate: too busy, too boring, too hard. I get it. Here’s one of my favorite tricks to fit mindfulness into your day: Look for moments in your life when you have to wait for something—the grocery line, at a restaurant, stuck in traffic, filling up your car—and instead of just wasting time, do a micro-meditation instead.
How do you do that? Breathe in for a count of three and breathe out for a count of six. While you’re breathing, just pay attention to your inner feelings and thoughts. That’s it. No need to fix anything; just breathe. Not only will you feel more relaxed when you’re done, but mindfulness can also zap negative emotions before they show up.
As Fredrickson says, “The power of mindfulness is that it can literally sever the link between negative thoughts and negative emotions.” That’s a pretty good deal for the three minutes it takes to fill up your car.
Furthermore, if you want to turn micro-meditations into a habit, repeat this phrase a few times: “If I have to wait, then I’ll do a micro-meditation.” You’ve just planted a habit seed. By repeating this phrase a few times, you’ve dropped that seed into your sub-conscious—now you get to watch it grow.
Whatever your favorite happiness-boosting strategy may be, you’ll find plenty of space and time to boost your positivity at Red Mountain. If your schedule allows, join my Thursday afternoon discussion on the brain-wellness connection and how to incorporate the science of self-care into your life on a daily basis. Or dive deeper and book a 50-minute private consultation where I’ll help you create your path to wellness using evidence-based tools to build positive habits you can keep for a lifetime.
Remember, you can do a lot to influence your happiness. If you ever doubt that’s the case, remember what Fredrickson says:
“You hold the reins to your own positivity.”
About James Garrett
A rare combination of coach, scientist, trainer, and entrepreneur, James Garrett is the founder of Brain by Design and has spoken on stages ranging from Harvard and TEDx to Silicon Slopes and Founder’s Weekend. He has coached and trained leaders at companies including Intermountain Healthcare, YoungLiving, BusyBusy, In What Language, and Zonos. In 2019, he launched the Deep Change Project, a year-long journey to discover what’s possible on the outer edges of human potential and neuroplasticity.