Human brains have a built in “negativity bias” – the brain pays more attention to bad news than good news.
How come? Well, it’s a brilliant mechanism for survival situations. Think of it like this – if the good news is a particularly delicious pineapple, and the bad news is an approaching tiger, you really shouldn’t dwell on the pineapple! Any early humans who made this mistake were quickly eliminated by natural selection – leaving those who paid attention to the tiger to survive and reproduce. They are our ancestors, and the negativity bias is their gift to us to help us survive.
But today’s world is different. While the good news might still be a particularly delicious pineapple for dessert, the bad news is more likely to be some corruption or injustice you can’t do anything about. Dwelling on the corruption or injustice outside of our circle of influence doesn’t help with our survival, it just makes us unhappy. The simplest way to create happiness is to simply enjoy the food and complement the chef. (And even if you are in a position to do something about the corruption or injustice, you’ll still create more happiness if you also enjoy the food and compliment the chef!)
But that means overcoming the negativity bias in your brain.
How? The first step is to notice positive experiences. If you’ve read my “Alive at Work” download (see the sidebar on the right), you’ll know that I recommend a simple exercise: write down 3 good things that have happened to you in the last 24 hours. If you do this every day for 3 weeks, you’ll be happier – and the amazing thing is you’ll stay happier. You will have created a new, positive habit that counteracts the negativity bias and makes you a happier person.
In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson suggests taking it further. He recommends dwelling in positive experiences for 10 to 30 seconds – so they can really “sink in.” In that way you can actually create new neural structures in your brain: physically rewiring your brain for happiness.
Would that work for you? You could try it now:
- What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?
- How does that feel?
- Stay with the experience for 15 seconds
Notice any difference?