The human brain operates with a negativity bias. The brain gives negative experiences more attention and processing then it gives positive experiences. We learn more and faster from pain than from pleasure. People work harder to avoid a loss than to attain an equally positive target. The reason for the negativity bias is rooted in the evolutionary process. In order to survive, humans had to learn to avoid predators, social aggression (from other tribes and within tribes), natural hazards (floods, storms, etc), physical and psychological pain. These are called threats. Humans were also oriented to seek food, shelter, sex, social connection, and pleasure - both psychological and physical pain. These are called treasures. Humans learned that avoiding threats was essential to life whereas seeking treasure usually had less immediate impact on survival. Thus, the human brain evolved to be routinely poised for threat. If a threat, like a predator, is not dealt with right away, the individual may not survive. Whereas, if a treasure was not obtained at a certain time (i.e. food), it could be pursued another time without causing significant danger to survival. Failing to deter a threat today, potentially meant loss of life and not having a chance at a treasure, ever!
So, we humans focus more and process more easily negative experiences. Negative experiences can actually take over and dislodge positive ones. We can see the evolutionary advantage here - if you are sitting on a tree branch eating an apple and a panther strolls by, your brain will immediately look to assess the level of threat simultaneously disregarding the taste and experience of enjoying the apple. Further, the thought of the panther is likely to linger for some time.
It has been postulated that it takes three positive experiences to make up for one negative experience. For instance, if a person has a bad experience at the doctor, it will take three positive doctor visits to achieve a neutral orientation to going to the doctor. It will take additional positive doctor visits to change the perception from a neutral anticipation of doctors visits to a positive anticipation of doctor visits. In order to promote a lasting positive perspective, the ratio of positive to negative must be even greater. In short, it generally takes many positive experiences to transform a negative experience into a positive one.
How is a positive orientation promoted? The brain is shaped by experience and not by thought or intellect. In order to have a more positive or happy outlook, you have to give yourself more positive experiences. A simple way to have more positive experiences is a technique known as take in the good or TIG.
In order to take in the good, you first identify a feeling state that you want to experience. For instance, you might identify comfort as the feeling state you want to experience.
There are many things that one can take in. It is
most effective to take in what is needed:
For forms of anxiety, fear, and anger, it is
therapeutic to take in experiences that focus in pleasure and comfort. Examples
are watching a sunset, eating a favorite food, the satisfaction of
accomplishing daily tasks.
There are many things that one can take in. It is most effective to take in what is needed:
For forms of anxiety, fear, and anger, it is therapeutic to take in experiences that focus in pleasure and comfort. Examples are watching a sunset, eating a favorite food, the satisfaction of accomplishing daily tasks.
For forms of impulsivity, excessivity in
behavior (i.e. addiction and compulsivity), emotional eating and hoarding, it
is therapeutic to take in feelings of safety, strength, peace or
For forms of relational problems and getting
along with others, it is therapeutic to take in feelings of being valued,
respected, liked, being included, fairness, kindness and feeling loved.
Taking in the good allows us to systematically overcome the brain's negativity bias. It helps us increase positive emotions and increase our capacity to deal with negative emotions and stress.
Submitted by Holly O. Houston, Ph.D. Adapted from Rick Hanson's book Buddha's Brain