How Mindfulness Can Counteract Negativity Bias

Imagine you’re living millions of years ago out on the plains of Africa. It's a dangerous place. The weather is hazardous. There are predators lurking about, slinking through the grass, waiting to pounce on you. Your nervous system needs to be on high alert to warn you of danger so you’re constantly attuned to the possibility of negative outcomes.

By contrast, let's say somebody from your band, your tribe flashes a smile at you. You smile back, and that's it. 

Why is that? Why would something positive not be as powerful in the body as something negative? 

Well, if somebody smiles at you and you smile back, it's nice for a moment. But if there’s a little rustle in the grass and your nervous system doesn't register it as a predator that's stalking you, you're dead. You're a lion’s next meal.

How does this relate to mindfulness?

There's a neuropsychologist by the name of Rick Hanson whose work I really enjoy because he explores how practicing mindfulness can shape our brains in a way that counteracts this negativity bias. And we should counteract it. After all, we’re no longer living in situations that constantly put us in mortal danger like our ancestors did. 

And yet it's been shown that negative experiences still tend to have a more profound impact on our nervous system than positive experiences. What’s worse, it’s been shown that we transfer negative experiences to our long-term memory more readily than positive experiences. 

This is where I think Rick Hanson’s work is so useful to us as mindfulness practitioners. Hanson says the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Think about that. You have a negative experience — perhaps you wake up in the morning and you were really hoping to have a couple eggs for breakfast, but there's only one egg in the fridge. (That actually happened to me this morning. It was devastating! I'm still recovering.) Or maybe you recall a bully on the playground when you were five years old. Whatever it is, your nervous system records these experiences. Something bad happens, and the amygdala in our brain fires. It transfers the negative experience to the memory center, and we remember that moment maybe the rest of our lives. 

Rick Hanson's antidote is to work with this bias. He suggests that you let positive experiences soak in to the mind — let it soak into your neural circuitry for at least 12 seconds.

Do that for a moment now. 

Think of one nice thing that has happened today — ideally something trivial. And just sit with it for at least 12 seconds.

We can use our mindfulness practice to amplify the countless positive things that happen in a day. We might have an amazing day, and then a single phone call completely dominates our awareness since it came in with the bad news. We run it through our minds again, and again, and again, in hopes that we might avoid something like this happening in the future. 

So instead of letting this negativity bias run away with our lives and rob us of the inherent happiness that we have as human beings who are alive and awake, we can soak in the positive no matter the circumstances. That's one of the takeaways of a mindfulness practice. If you are aware in this moment and breathing, you are more wealthy than the wealthiest of kings and queens.

So let’s do a little bit of neuro-sculpting. We're going to focus in on a positive experience that easily could have slipped right off of our teflon brains. We're going to take a moment to just allow some positivity to fill our awareness. 

Over time as we make a practice of this, as we hold an intention to do this in our mindfulness practice, we have quicker, more ready access to positive experience. It makes us happier.

Begin Practice

Whatever you're doing at the moment, just notice that you're doing it. Bring your awareness to sensation. Just the feeling of feeling. The feeling of physical embodiment, of sensation. 

And as you do this, you can breathe. Just allow yourself to breathe and imagine that the breath is like a billows, fanning the flames of a fire. Only now it's the breath fanning the flames of sensation. Just allow yourself to enjoy in embodiment. And if you have chronic pain or significant pain in your experience in this moment that's totally okay. You can bring awareness fully to any part of your embodied experience that isn't painful. So, if you have a splitting headache, you can focus on the quality of having relaxed muscles throughout the body. If you have back pain, you can notice how good it feels as the lungs expand and contract and the breath nourishes the body with oxygen. Do this for a few moments.

And now I want you to look back on your day. Or if you just barely rolled out of bed you can look back to yesterday. I want you to just call up one thing that happened that was nice. It doesn't have to be amazing. It can be very subtle. But subtle is significant. Call up just one thing and really let it soak in. You can even allow a subtle smile to spread across your face as you do this.

And after looking back now at something pleasant that happened, I want you to look forward. Let your awareness be drawn to one thing you're looking forward to, today or tomorrow.  Something you're excited about. Doesn't have to be big. Might just be going home and reading the paper because you enjoy reading the news after work. Might be going on a little walk after dinner. Just let your awareness be drawn to one thing. And just tune into the feeling of anticipation. Forget how things turn out, forget how things you're looking forward to actually unfold. But just feel the feeling of anticipation, and enjoy that. Let that be its own reward. 

Where do you feel positive sensations associated with anticipation in your body? Just let it soak. What a gift.

Conclude

You can relax, let go of any effort, and just pulling back. 

I would invite you to make this a part of your mindfulness practice. You can do this anywhere. You can do it on the fly. You can do it in sixty seconds. And if you soak a little bit longer you can do it in two minutes. 

Just noticing all the good things happening that we tend to look past because positive experience slips off us like teflon; negative experience sticks to us like Velcro. As you bring you mindful awareness to positive experience, you realize there is so much positive experience happening in reality moment to moment that we fail to see. You realize that life is much more blessed than we have previously imagined. 

As we do this practice, attending to positivity with intention, we come to do what the Taoists instructed us to do thousands of years ago, which is to learn to dwell in reality.