At my recent lecture at the Mid-Manhattan Library on developing resilience and recovery muscles, one of the members in the audience noted that she always seemed to gloss over the positive things that happened in her life and home in on the negative.
Others nodded their heads in vigorous agreement and with the constant parade of books on positive thinking out there, clearly, she is not the only one having trouble. But why is that – why does the default for our attention tend to be on the negative, not the positive?
I had been ascribing our fascination with the negative to cultural conditioning but it turns out an interesting explanation lies with our biology and Darwin. In her book review of Rapt, by Winifred Gallagher, Laura Miller at Salon Magazine writes:
“Attention is the faculty by which the mind selects and then zeroes in on the most “salient” aspect of any situation. The problem is that the brain is not a unified whole, but a collection of “systems” that often come into conflict with each other. When that happens, the more primitive, stimulus-driven, unconscious systems (the “reactive” and “behavioral” components of our brains) will usually override the consciously controlled “reflective” mind.”
Back in our cavemen days, it was threats that had the greatest salience: The happy-go-lucky individual who didn’t notice the big furry creature coming up behind him while he was picking berries from the bush may have been less anxious but he also had a shorter life span. Those who spotted and eluded dangers tended to survive and pass on their traits to future generations. As a result, we inherited from our distant ancestors the tendency to pay greater attention to the unpleasant and troublesome elements of our surroundings. In modern times, however, the “threats” are more likely to be a nasty email exchange with a co-worker rather than a charging saber-toothed tiger.
So, if focusing on the unpleasant and troublesome is no longer crucial to our daily survival, how do we recondition our minds not to react each time the primitive part of our brain calls out: “Look, a saber-toothed email!”
1. Do an attention spot-check.
The first step is to simply become more aware of where your attention is. During the day, there is any number of physical, emotional, mental or environmental details you could focus on and if you don’t give it some direction, your mind will go on auto-pilot. Just because you’re thinking about it doesn’t mean it deserves your attention. When you catch yourself dreading the tedious conference call you have later this afternoon, ask yourself, “Is this a saber-toothed tiger?” Now, what else could you focus on?
2. Find a role model (or three).
It’s easier to change your thinking patterns when you have someone to emulate. Actively look for and identify people in your life who don’t complain — who know how to put a positive spin on a situation and make it more appealing or less daunting, without being Pollyanna. Study and imitate them. (It may feel unnatural at first. Remember you’re going against your natural biology.)
3. Stay in the emotional vicinity.
Sometimes, trying to “think positive” can make us feel worse. That’s because you can’t go too far, emotionally speaking, from where you’re at: if you’re feeling utterly dejected, you won’t be able to feel exhilarated just because you repeat ad nauseum “Life is great.” As Abraham-Hicks explains in Ask and It Is Given, it’s better to take an incremental approach in choosing thoughts that help to improve your feeling. Let’s say you’re discouraged about your efforts to lose weight. Rather than making a statement like “I feel good about my body,” which you don’t actually believe, start with more general statements that you can resonate with and go from there: “For the most part, my body is doing all right.” Or “I know there are others who have been where I now am who have found a way that works for them.”
4. Leverage your natural curiosity.
Noah St. John, author of The Secret Code of Success, tells how, after years of repeating affirmations such as “I am happy, healthy and wealthy” with no results, he had a revelation. The human mind is always in the process of asking and seeking the answers to questions. Too often, though, we’re asking the wrong questions: “Why did this happen to me?” “Why doesn’t anything ever go right?”
Your brain has an “automatic search function” that will seek out answers anyway, says St. John, why not ask the questions you really want answers to, such as: “Why do I feel so happy?” “Why do I have so much energy?” “Why do things go so well for me?” (Again, it may feel a little unnatural at first, but watch how your mind, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, trots off obediently to look for answers.)
Much like our appendix, negativity has become a vestigial appendage that has no valuable function in modern survival. In fact, a growing number of research studies show that those who are optimistic about life live longer and healthier than those who are pessimistic. The rules of survival have changed.