Having a positive mental attitude is essential to physical and emotional health. Positivity helps us deal with (and bounce back from) setbacks more easily. Unfortunately, being upbeat can feel as daunting as climbing Everest. The good news is it only takes 12 seconds to shift gears from mumbling, “yuck,” to shouting, “yay!” from the top of a mountain (Everest or otherwise). Here’s how to trick your brain into being more positive—and why it works.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room: negative thoughts. They are normal. In fact, humans gravitate towards negativity! According to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, PhD, our brains react more strongly to negative feelings and better retain lessons learned from bad experiences (versus good ones). In other words, painful stuff imprints itself more easily on our brains. This negativity bias kept humans alive during our hunter-gatherer days, which is great. For the 21st century? We could all probably use a little less negative thinking in our lives.
Rewiring our negativity bias
Our brains are pretty incredible organs. Sure, their hard-wiring nudges us to indulge in negative thoughts, but they also respond well to rewiring. Dr. Hanson, who founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and has written six books, including the bestseller, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, says our brains need just 12 seconds to build new connections between neurons.
Neurons are the communicators of the brain. They carry messages from one part of the brain to another, and from the brain to other areas of the nervous system. The 86 billion neurons in your noggin tell you how to act in certain situations and interpret incoming information. Neurons connect good experiences with positive emotions. For example, you conquer Everest, then you feel happy and proud. Your neurons will link the experience (conquering Everest) to positivity (happiness, pride). If you climb to the top of mountains regularly, your brain will continue to associate “climbing” with “happy.”
Now, as Dr. Hanson puts it in his TedxMarin talk, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” If you want to trick your brain into being more positive, all you have to do is build new neural connections between an experience and an emotion. So, how do you do that?
The 12-second trick for positive thinking
When we are stressed, our cortisol levels rise. Cortisol triggers our emergency, fight-or-flight response. Again, great for short periods of hunting and gathering. Not great for 21st-century citizens experiencing life, work and eight hours straight of House Hunters. Too much cortisol increases our chances of falling prey to depression or anxiety. If you encounter a setback or are feeling sad, frustrated or jealous, try to use the 12-second rule to bring yourself back to a more positive place.
To do this, spend at least 12 seconds recalling a positive memory, image or relationship. Sit with it. Think about all the reasons your brain classifies this memory, image or relationship as something good. Continue to do this any time you feel stressed out or find yourself veering into negative territory. Over time, your brain will train itself to look on the bright side, rather than giving into the negativity of the moment.
This doesn’t mean you’re ignoring bad things that happen and must be dealt with. It means you are rewiring your brain to lean into positivity rather than negativity. It can build resilience against difficult situations, improve overall mood and even help fight against PTSD.
Now, that’s a great reason to shout “Yay!” from a mountaintop.