Taking In The Good Do Positive Experiences
Stick to Your Ribs?
Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in
"negativity bias." In other words, as we evolved
over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing
carrots, it was a lot more important to notice,
react to, and remember sticks than it was for
That's because - in the tough environments in
which our ancestors lived - if they missed out on a
carrot, they usually had a shot at another one
later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick - a
predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from
others of their species - WHAM, no more chances to
pass on their genes.
The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways.
For example, studies have found that:
- In a relationship, it typically takes five
good interactions to make up for a single bad
- People will work much harder to avoid losing
$100 than they will work to gain the same amount
- Painful experiences are much more memorable
than pleasurable ones.
In your own mind, what do you usually think
about at the end of the day? The fifty things that
went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the
guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you
had said differently to a co-worker, or the one
thing on your To Do list that didn't get done . .
In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative
experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That
shades "implicit memory" - your underlying
expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood
- in an increasingly negative direction.
And that's just not fair, since probably most of
the facts in your life are positive or neutral.
Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a
lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a
batch of emails, or you learn something new. And
lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of
your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life
is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or
yourself (e.g., personal qualities like
determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).
Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a
big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory
banks naturally makes a person more anxious,
irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be
patient and giving toward others.
In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about
passing on genes - by any means necessary. She
doesn't care if we happen to suffer along the way -
from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow,
worthlessness, or anger - or create suffering for
The result: a brain that is tilted against
lasting contentment and fulfillment.
But you don't have to accept this bias! By
tilting toward the good - "good" in the practical
sense of that which brings more happiness to
oneself and more helpfulness to others - you merely
level the playing field.
You'll still see the tough parts of life. In
fact, you'll become more able to change them or
bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that
will help put challenges in perspective, lift your
energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and
fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to
And now, tilted toward absorbing the good,
instead of positive experiences washing through you
like water through a sieve, they'll collect in
implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the
famous saying, "neurons that fire together, wire
together." The more you get your neurons firing
about positive facts, the more they'll be wiring up
positive neural structures.
Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and
psychologically skillful way to improve how you
feel, get things done, and treat others. It is
among the top five personal growth methods I know.
In addition to being good for adults, it's great
for children, helping them to become more
resilient, confident, and happy.
Here's how to take in the good - in three simple
1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good
Good facts include positive events - like the
taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected
compliment - and positive aspects of the world and
yourself. When you notice something good, let
yourself feel good about it.
Try to do this at least a half dozen times a
day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good
events, and you can always recognize good things
about the world and yourself. Each time takes just
30 seconds or so. It's private; no one needs to
know you are taking in the good. You can do it on
the fly in daily life, or at special times of
reflection, like just before falling asleep (when
the brain is especially receptive to new
Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as
thinking that you don't deserve to, or that it's
selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure.
Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard
and let bad things happen.
Barriers to feeling good are common and
understandable - but they get in the way of you
taking in the resources you need to feel better,
have more strength, and have more inside to give to
others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then
turn your attention back to the good news. Keep
opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting
the good facts affect you.
It's like sitting down to a meal: don't just
look at it-taste it!
2. Really enjoy the experience.
Most of the time, a good experience is pretty
mild, and that's fine. But try to stay with it for
20 or 30 seconds in a row - instead of getting
distracted by something else.
As you can, sense that it is filling your body,
becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other
researchers have shown, the longer that something
is held in awareness and the more emotionally
stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and
thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in
You are not craving or clinging to positive
experiences, since that would ultimately lead to
tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing
the opposite: by taking them in and filling
yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel
less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on
external supplies; your happiness and love will
become more unconditional, based on an inner
fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts
in your life happen to be good ones.
3. Intend and sense that the good experience is
sinking into you.
People do this in different ways. Some feel it
in their body like a warm glow spreading through
their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa
on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like
a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good
feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling
in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might
imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her
heart. And some might simply know conceptually,
that while this good experience is held in
awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and
gradually wiring together
Any single time you do this will make only a
little difference. But over time those little
differences will add up, gradually weaving positive
experiences into the fabric of your brain and your
* * *
As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the
the years will take care of themselves.
is a neuropsychologist and author of
Brain: The practical neuroscience of
& wisdom with
Rick Mendius and Mother Nurture: A Mother's
Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate
Relationships. A summa cum laude graduate of
UCLA who received his doctorate from the Wright
Institute in Berkeley, CA, he founded the
Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and
Contemplative Wisdom, edits the Wise Brain
Bulletin, and writes a blog for PsychologyToday.com
as well as a weekly newsletter called Just One
Thing; his articles have also appeared in Tricycle
Magazine, Insight Journal, Inquiring Mind, and
Buddhist Geeks on-line magazine. He teaches
regularly at universities and meditation centers in
Europe, Australia, and North America, and has audio
programs with Sounds True. Rick began meditating in
1974 and has practiced in several traditions; he
was a board member at Spirit Rock Meditation Center
for nine years and is a graduate of its Community
Dharma Leaders program. He leads a regular
meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. Currently a
Trustee of Saybrook University, he was also
President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a non-profit
agency. He and his wife have two adult children.
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