We’ve all been there. You receive 100 compliments but it’s that 1 insult that you remember. You nailed a presentation but can’t help but ruminate over a typo in the follow up email.
Welcome to the negativity bias, the process by which humans give greater psychological weight to negative experiences over positive ones.
As leading psychologist, Rick Hanson, explains, “as our brains evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences if one survived them. So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in your emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences […] require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short term memory buffers to long term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.”
So, there you have it. We are pre-disposed to remember negative experiences more easily than positive ones.
While this tendency to dwell on the negative was helpful in pre-historic times when we were dodging sabre tooth tigers, nowadays it’s become a major cause of depression and anxiety, and prevents many of us from enjoying our lives to the full. When we focus on negative experiences, it registers in the primordial part of our brain, the amygdala. This area is responsible for triggering our fight and flight response which floods our body with adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones run riot in our system causing our blood pressure and heart rate to rise and our digestive system to slow down or stop completely. The more we dwell upon negative situations, the more we stimulate our amygdala, which continues to trigger the release of further stress hormones. This inbuilt response can lead to a perpetual cycle of stress which can be difficult to break away from.
So, what can we do to combat this negative bias?
It’s simple, start to pay more attention to the positive. Recent developments in the field of neuroscience have shown that our brain is able to change and evolve over time. By deliberately shifting our attention to positive experiences, we can develop new neural pathways and in doing so, re-wire our brain. The more we use these pathways, the stronger they become, making it easier for us to transform our outlook.
How gratitude can be used to help
According to psychologists, one of the best ways of combating our negativity bias is to practise gratitude.
But what is gratitude exactly? We all know that it means to express thanks, but does it go any deeper than this?
The Harvard Medical School describes gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals–whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”.
For me this hits the nail on the head, not only does gratitude encourage us to celebrate the goodness in our lives, but in doing so, it encourages us to step outside of ourselves and reinforces our connections to others or something bigger than ourselves.
Benefits of gratitude
As well as helping us combat our preponderance to negativity, practising gratitude has been shown to lead to increased happiness, better self-esteem, more fulfilling relationships and greater life satisfaction . It also benefits our physical health. Studies show that it can lower our blood pressure and heart rate, improve the quality of our sleep and even reduce cellular inflammation .
This all sounds great, but how do we actually go about practising gratitude? Would a single round of thank you cards suffice?
How to establish a gratitude practice
In order to reap the many psychological and physical benefits of gratitude, psychologists recommend establishing a regular and sustained gratitude practice. The more we practise, the more we fire up those neural pathways in our brain and the more attuned to it we become.
Including gratitude in your daily life doesn’t have to take long. Here are two simple ways of practising gratitude which can be incorporated into your daily routine in 15 minutes:
(1) 5-minute gratitude meditation
Gratitude meditation is simply a practice where we reflect on the things in our lives that we feel grateful for. It’s about savouring that feeling of appreciation, whether for a family member or friend, a beautiful walk in nature or a delicious meal. It doesn’t matter how big or small, the most important thing is to experience the feeling of gratitude and to notice how it makes you feel.
Including a 5-minute gratitude meditation as soon as you wake up, can help you focus and cultivate a sense of appreciation before you get too caught up in your day.
Here is a guided meditation which I’ve recorded which you may like to use for inspiration. To listen to the meditation click here.
(2) 10-minute daily gratitude diary
Another great way to weave a sense of gratitude into your day is by keeping a gratitude diary.
Tim Ferris, entrepreneur and best-selling author, recommends spending just 5 minutes each morning writing down 3 things that you feel grateful for and 5 minutes each evening reflecting on everything that went well for you that day. This way you start the day focusing on the good and end the day with a smile on your face.
To get the most from the experience:
a. Notice the everyday things that you normally overlook.
It’s not always easy to acknowledge the good things in life, particularly if you feel depressed or anxious, but focusing on the small things that you often overlook can really help. Feeling a sense of appreciation for your comfortable bed, access to fresh water and the love of a pet, can help to reframe your perspective.
b. Savour how it makes you feel
To avoid this exercise becoming a robotic chore, notice how you feel when you bring to mind what you feel grateful for. Take time to read your words out loud, notice how you feel in your body and savour any sensations that arise.
c. Transform the negative into positive
If there are areas of your life that you’re struggling with, see if you can pick three things that you’re grateful for despite these setbacks. For example, if you’re suffering from relationship difficulties, you may bring to mind a moment when you laughed with that person or felt some kind of connection, no matter how fleeting. Recognising the good in seemingly negative experiences, can help you to tap into a more positive mindset and may even prompt a change in this area of your life.
GRATITUDE THEMED YOGA CLASS
It’s not always easy to find the motivation to start and sustain a new habit, so to help get you started I’m going to be holding two special gratitude inspired online classes on Monday and Saturday next week.
Join me at 7.30am on Monday 7th September and 10am on Saturday 12th where we’ll be exploring how to weave gratitude into our yoga practice with a powerful, heart opening sequence.
Join on Monday and receive access to my Saturday class for free.
Now there’s something to be grateful for…  https://www.rickhanson.net/contact/faqs/