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Blog: What You Practice Grows Stronger: Choosing Joy to De-Condition Our Negativity Bias

Jun 4, 2018

What You Practice Grows Stronger:
Choosing Joy to De-Condition Our Negativity Bias

Some years back, I was talking with a woman in our community. She was a breast cancer survivor and she told me about a conversation that she had with a friend who also was a survivor. Her friend asked her, “What would it feel like for you to think that something good might happen, rather than something bad?” Her response was, “Totally weird and uncomfortable. “Good,” her friend said. “Try it now.”

From an evolutionary perspective, it really makes sense that we feel uncomfortable when we envision positive things coming our way. Our brains are designed to scan for trouble and fixate on what might go wrong in any given situation. This is described as the negativity bias and it one of our hard wired survival strategies. Of course, it is a very good strategy for avoiding real danger. But, in the absence of a true threat, it limits our capacity for enjoying, and celebrating our moments. We have such a short time on planet earth. When the negativity bias rules, we get very loyal to our anxiety, mistrust and vigilance. We cannot inhabit the fullness of our lives.

In happiness research, a common denominator among those who are deemed “happy” is a sense that they are actually choosing to be happy. They believe that happiness is possible and there is a willingness to turn towards it. Catholic mystic and writer Henri Nouwen writes:

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and then keep choosing it every day.”[1]

More and more, we are becoming familiar with the principal of neuroplasticity. We know that how we pay attention can actually rewire the structure and the function of our brain. It is said that where attention goes, energy flows. Intentionally turning towards joy cultivates a pathway that uplifts our minds and undoes the negativity-bias. It creates a kind of an inner atmosphere that allows true happiness to unfold itself.

This is an important understanding because, when we run through our thoughts over and over again, it creates a certain biochemistry in the body that then perpetuates more of the same. Whatever you practice grows stronger. If we practice judgment and anxious worrying, those grow stronger. Likewise, when we practice gratitude or sending well wishes to others, then those are the pathways that deepen and flourish.

One way that we can begin to entrain our minds to gladness is by really noticing and savoring our moments of joy. Just 20-30 seconds of immersing ourselves in the feelings evoked by the hug of a dear friend or the laughter of a grandchild can strengthen the neural pathways in the brain. It is radical and transformative to pause and sense the goodness that is right here in this moment. When we experience gladness for simple things, we know we really can be happy, no matter what.

I hope you enjoy this short reflection on how savoring our moments can help decondition the brain’s negativity bias and lead to a greater sense of happiness and well-being:

Adapted from Happiness is Possible: De-conditioning the Negativity Bias, Part 2, a talk given by Tara Brach, Ph.D on June 6, 2017.

[1] 1. Nouwen, H. J., Laird, R., & Christensen, M. J. (2004). The Heart of Henri Nouwen: His Words of Blessing. London, UK: Darton Longman & Todd.


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