Recent findings in neuroscience suggest a pessimistic conclusion: that the way we’re wired makes it easier for us to be unhappy than happy. The complex human brain isn’t an organ for dispassionately investigating the world. It evolved as a tool for anticipating and overcoming dangers, for protecting us from pain, and for solving problems; so dangers, pain, and problems are what it notices. What isn’t painful or problematic, what’s pleasant and harmonious, tends to slip into the background. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.” What. Hanson is describing is known as the brain’s “negativity bias.”
Because of our negativity bias, as a species we tend to be far more vigilant than we need to be. Our minds are more or less constantly either rehashing or rehearsing. When we’re depressed they’re usually rehashing; focusing on the hurts and wrongs in our past; and when we’re anxious they’re usually rehearsing – or, as I sometimes call it, “disasterbating” – focusing on what might go wrong tomorrow. Our depressions live in the past and our anxieties live in the future. Calmness and peace of mind, on the other hand, live in the present.
We spend much of our time explaining the world to ourselves, and we react emotionally to these explanations rather than to the facts. We get lost in our thoughts, forgetting that they’re just interpretations of reality, and mistake them for reality itself. We confuse the map for the territory, which is like going to a restaurant and trying to eat the menu. Most of us don’t realize how much of our waking hours we spend in a kind of trance of thought, constantly remembering what’s problematic and scanning the environment for signs of the next danger around the corner. As a result, almost all of us are prone to be far more anxious, irritable, and depressed than we need to be.
But there is an important optimistic finding in neuroscience, too, and that is that the brain is characterized by neuroplasticity, which insures that, throughout our lives, its physical structure changes as a result of how we use it. This means that, by inclining our minds away from negativity bias, and toward engaging with what is positive in our lives we can actually diminish our negativity bias. The steps to take aren’t difficult, although they do require consistency and patience. My dream is that someday every school will offer children an emotional intelligence curriculum that teaches at least the following two practices:
Spend some time every day cultivating present-focus. The mind can imagine that it lives in the past or in the future, but the bodily sensations and feelings always inhabits the present, so the secret to accessing the peace of the present moment is to focus attention on what is happening in the body. In traditional mindfulness meditation, for instance, you just sit still and pay attention to your breathing. But there are other practices that are also effective. You can take a simple task, such as washing the dishes or brushing your teeth, and give it your complete attention without wandering off into thought. Do the same with vigorous physical exercise, such as jogging, swimming, or brisk walking. The point is to spend some part of everyday simply being with what is happening now, rather than leaning into the future.
Take in the good. This just means deliberately focusing your attention on positive experiences, rather than taking them for granted and letting them slip into the background. Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day, and each time you do it spend about 30 seconds or so focusing, which is about the amount of time it takes the brain to begin to register positive events. One easy way to do this is to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” by making a daily list of all the things in your life for which you are thankful. Each single time you do this not much will change, but if you do it regularly, it is like filling a bucket with water one drop at a time. Gradually you condition your brain to pay more attention to states of happiness and contentment, and gradually these states begin to become the mind’s default settings.