Even though we may go through life chasing after rewards and avoiding threats, maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain, our brains have a strong bias toward the negative.
This negative bias actually made sense if you were an early human living on an African plain 30,000 years ago. If you missed a reward (something positive), such as a tasty antelope, there would always be another in the future. However, if you missed a threat (something negative), like a lion stocking you, game over. All the rewards in the world don’t mean a thing if you aren’t around to enjoy them.
This system worked well enough in its time, but much less so now. Our minds offer a litany of threats, judgments, comparisons, and negative assessments, the worst of which we save for ourselves. What can be done?
We now know that due to neuroplasticity (the ability of the mind to change the structure and function of the brain), directing our attention skillfully can create positive changes in the brain. Scanning for positives can help counter negative bias. If we can down-regulate our distress, and be mindful in the present moment, we can often find positives right in front of us. This is a great practice while commuting to or from work.
Turn off the largely negative news on the radio, your music, and typical ruminations that may accompany your usual commute. In other words, turn off the autopilot. Now, without being a distracted driver, notice anything pleasant around you. What does the sky look like? Is there a beautiful sunrise or sunset? What is the quality of the light? Can you see anything beautiful in the scenery? Can you see mountains, valleys, greenery? Simply notice anything positive on your journey. Try this a few times and notice if anything is different.
We can scan for positives in many ways. Maybe it is the sight of a smiling child or pleasant thoughts, like gratitude. Imagine someone whom you love entirely. Bring into being the positive feelings you have toward them. Notice, list, be with anything positive you encounter. And why not smile; a Duchenne smile please, one so big and real that the muscles around the eyes contract giving one crow’s feet. Each evening, you might list 1 positive thing about yourself and 1 about your day, your spouse, boss, or child. When you do, pause to allow the positive feeling to sink deep into your emotional memory.
Taking in The Good
Rick Hansen, PhD, a neuropsychologist who studies and uses brain-based strategies in clinical practice offers another practice he calls, “Taking in the good.” Once we have noticed something positive, he recommends savoring the experience for 15 seconds or more to counteract the brain’s negative bias. This gives the brain time to really notice, process, feel, and log the positive event. We can imagine it soaking into our brain and body.
As he says, “Placing a jewel in the treasure chest of the heart.” He also recommends intensifying the positive emotion. All of this really can help us make the most of the many positive things around us in every moment. The effect is like a bucket under a slowly dripping faucet. It is hard to notice one drop, but the accumulated effect over time can be remarkable. Again, why not give it a try for a few weeks? Notice any subtle changes that may occur.
I have already referred to the “Duchenne” smile named for Guillaume Duchenne, a French physician known for researching facial expression in the 19th century. Research has shown that smiling this way regularly can improve mood even if one does not feel happy at the time of the smiling. The effect is intensified though if we contemplate and feel the emotion of images that make us smile or laugh.
Sit in a comfortable and upright posture, sensing your inner nobility. Gently close your eyes and allow a soft smile to rest on your face. Let go of any tension in the shoulders or muscles of the face. Now redirect your attention to focus on the physical sensations of the breathing itself. Feel the sensations of the abdominal wall expanding as the breath comes in and falling back as the breath goes out.
Follow the breath as an anchor in the present. When your mind wanders during the exercise, as minds do, just gently and kindly return your awareness to the breath, over and over. Do this for one minute. Now imagine something or someone that naturally makes you smile. This may be children you know, puppies, kittens, something funny from YouTube, anything that brings a feeling of joy and delight. Make and hold a Duchenne smile for the next minute while visualizing your happy image. Allow the positive emotion to intensify supporting an even bigger smile and really engaging those eye muscles. Now return to the breath for another minute then repeat the happy image and smile. Do this alternating with the breath for as long as you wish.
It is natural for the smile to feel “fake.” That’s OK. You might even feel like your face will shatter. I promise it won’t. Remember that we are creating the mood of happiness to support the smile. This is very different from simply trying to put on a brave smile when we feel poorly. Try this each morning for just a few minutes for a week and notice what, if anything, is different.
This smile meditation can also be performed less formally. You can do the smile and imagery portion for a few minutes on the commute to or from work. Three minutes is sufficient. Notice how forced it feels initially and how this fades over time. Notice if you are any more likely to smile or have any lift in your mood in the hours following. At the very least, for a few minutes in your day, your mind gets a break from autopilot and is immersed in joy.