I used to think it was just me.
I used to think that my brain was an anomaly in the way it always gravitated towards the negative and seemed to fixate on what was wrong in my life instead of being grateful for what was good.
After being worn down by anxiety and thought-induced stress, I decided to study about the brain to see if science offered any solutions on how to turn off my negative brain.
As I began researching I discovered I was not alone: millions of people today struggle with negative thinking and with a running monologue of complaints, anxieties and thought-induced stress.
Interestingly, the research shows that this epidemic of negative thinking does not necessarily correlate to what is actually happening in a person’s life. If someone is weighed down by negative thoughts, they tend to be tormented by their brain even when things are going comparatively well. Similarly, if someone’s brain is filled with positive thoughts like gratitude and compassion, they tend to have peace of mind even when things are going wrong in their life.
This is counter-intuitive to how we think about inner peace and happiness. We tend to think that a positive outlook results from external circumstances and forces that are outside of us. Though we might not actually express it so crudely, we intuitively assume that peace of mind results from getting what we want. While this may be partially true in some cases, it is more often the case that peace of mind results from the mindset we choose to adopt about our lives irrespective to what is happening around us.
(For a good summary of the research establishing that peace of mind isn’t dependent on external circumstances, watch Dan Gilbert’s Ted Talk video. He explains how there is a type of happiness we experience when we get what we want (what Dan calls “naturally happiness”) but there is also another type of happiness we create for ourselves when we don’t get what we want through being content with our lives as they are (what Dan calls “synthetic happiness”).
Challenging The Brain’s Negative Monologue
It’s one thing to recognize that peace of mind results from our mindset rather than our circumstances. It’s another to put that into practice. The human brain is a practical negativity-machine that can only be controlled with relentless vigilance.
The average person experiences thousands of thoughts every day, most of which flow into the mind without us even choosing like a fast-moving river. Most of these thoughts flow out of our mind as quickly as they come but not without leaving a residue on our unconscious. If even 15% of the thousands of thoughts that arrive in our brain every day are negative then that amounts to hundreds of negative thoughts in a single day. For most people the negative thoughts reach well into the thousands. Over a lifetime, this accumulative load of negativity can begin to have an effect on our health, our relationships with others and even on our self-identity. As psychologist and author Rick Hanson recently observed in his article ‘Is Your Mind Wandering?’,
“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?… Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
Think of the brain as the theater of a constant tug-of-war between the positive and the negative side of us. The more our thought-life empowers the negative side in this tug-of-war the more we will be weighed down and actually make our suffering worse. The tug-of-war between the negative and the positive ultimately determines whether our life will be filled with joy, gratitude, and a sense of hopeful expectancy about the future, or whether our life will be weighed down by grumbling, stress, and a sense of anxiety about the future.
Imagine you know someone whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend? Obviously you would tell your friend she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms. Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, when it comes to ourselves we pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves that is just as bad. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it. If you think I’m exaggerating, just ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your brain amplify your negative traits while minimizing everything that is good about you?
- Do you spend more time thinking about what is wrong in your life than what is positive?
- Does your mind make hardships worse by dwelling on them over and over again?
- Do you suffer unnecessarily from imagining future scenarios that may never transpire?
- Do you allow your brain to fall victim of common thinking errors such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and mind-reading?
- When challenges arise in your life, does your mind send you defeatist messages or do you analyze strategies to help you rise above the situation?
If after reading the above questions you’re thinking “Oh my God, I do that all the time!” please know that you are not alone: most of us suffer from negativity bias whereby we fixate on the negative. In fact, our brains are so prone to negativity that 75-98% of mental and physical illnesses actually originate in our thought life.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s possible to take control of your brain. You do not have to be a passive victim of your brain’s negativity bias.
6 Steps to Keeping a Positive Mindset
Step 1: Pay attention to your “positivity ratio”. Keeping a proper balance between positive and negative thoughts or emotions is crucial to well-being. “Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day”, wrote Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore in the Harvard Business Review, adding that
“Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages.”
Step 2: Challenge Negative Self-Talk. One of the myths about positive thinking or learned optimism is that it involves tricking our brains into pretending that everything is fine even when it isn’t. Not surprisingly, those types of mental gymnastics don’t work very well. The reality is that when we find our brains trashing ourselves with negativity the solution is to challenge this with positive self-talk based on the truth. As the Mayo Clinic observed in an article on positive thinking,
“Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way.”
Here are some examples of how we can challenge negative self-talk:
- “Yes, this is a difficult challenge, but I have many resources for coping with this.”
- “Okay, things are going wrong in my life right now, but I still have a lot to be grateful for.”
- “I don’t know how this is going to turn out but I do know that whatever happens I will be stretched and have the opportunity to grow through this trial.”
- I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure and achieve a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.
Notice that this type of positive self-talk is not blind optimism or escapism but based on realities that most of us can affirm about ourselves and our lives.
Step 3: Practice Mindfulness
Human beings are gifted with a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex that enables us to observe our thinking and exercise censorship over our own thoughts. By exercising moment-by-moment awareness of what is happening in our brains we can take control of our thought-life instead of being a passive victim to toxic thinking. As George Dvorsky explained in an article for Sentient Developments,
“A number of years ago the NSF estimated that our brains produce as many as 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day depending on how ‘deep’ a thinker you are (other estimates run as high as 60,000/day). … what’s disturbing about these 50,000 thoughts per day is that the vast majority of them are pure nonsense. We often dwell in the past or the future, obsessing about mistakes we might have made, battling guilt, planning ahead or worrying. We are constantly drifting into fantasy, fiction and negativity.
Consequently, an absolute minuscule number of our thoughts are actually focused on what is truly important and real: the present moment. The moment is all that is, every was and will be. Everything else is elusive and illusory, particularly as our subjective awareness and feelings are concerned.
Some people have estimated that upwards of 70-80% of our daily thoughts are negative. That’s very sad if true. The human mind, it would seem, is wired for neuroticism. A healthy first step to alleviate this problem, therefore, would be to increase one’s awareness of these negative and bogus thoughts. This is what’s referred to as mindfulness. It’s a type of self-reflexivity and enhanced self-awareness that helps Buddhists root themselves in the moment. Once individuals have awareness of these thoughts they can sweep them away from their thoughts like fallen leaves.
Practicing mindfulness is hard at first. However, science is showing that mindfulness can literally rewire your brain. The more you practice mindfulness, the more brain changes happen; these brain changes then make it easier to practice more mindfulness which, in turn, create even more changes in the brain.
Step 4: Focus on What is Good. We tend to remember the bad things that happen to us more than the good. Moreover, research shows that our natural default is to reframe positive events in negative terms instead of reframing negative events in positive terms. Once we realize this is what we do, we can take control of our brains by consciously choosing to focus on the positive. Walter Jacobson emphasized this in his article ‘The Dangerous Power of Negative Thinking’:
“It’s best that we remind ourselves that there is less shame in failure and defeat than in never trying at all, that many great hearts and minds have risen from the ashes of multiple failures and defeat to reap the rewards of great success and prosperity.
Bottom line: we must be vigilant over our thoughts, stop the negativity and be positive and enthusiastic regardless of adversity and seemingly overwhelming odds against us, and push forward with one true thought always in the forefront of our consciousness. Win, lose or draw, it’s much better to play the game than watch from the sidelines.”
Step 5: Stop Complaining. We all have things we can complain about from problems in our health to family issues to work-related stress. It is true that sometimes we need to talk about our problems to process them, just as we often need to think about them instead of pretending the problem’s aren’t there. However, it’s important to distinguish between necessary strategic thinking/talking about problems vs. useless worrying and complaining. The first leads to action while the second can be a waste of mental and emotional resources.
Many people are participating in the 21-Day Complaint Free Challenge where you spend 3 weeks without complaining at all. Given that the people who take this challenge are happier and healthier, many people have decided to make it into a lifestyle. After spending 21 days of not complaining, many people don’t want to go back and spend the rest of their life trying to never complain again.
Step 6: Practice Gratitude. Many people think that gratitude is an emotion that you either have or don’t. The reality is that gratitude is a skill that can be developed with practice. When we choose to focus on all we have to be grateful for this actually affects material changes in the brain, leading to a happier life and mental peace.
- Life is Difficult
- Conversation on Brain Fitness with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips
- Robin’s Gratefulness Blog Posts