The human brain has a negativity bias—it endlessly searches for the bad news but often overlooks the good. That negativity bias made sense for our ancient ancestors because focusing on what could go wrong is a smart survival strategy when you are in a world where lions and tigers pose real threats. But for modern humans, the tendency to fixate on potential problems can leave us feeling anxious and unhappy even when we are safe and life is good. To overcome this—and be happy—we sometimes must remind ourselves to “take in the good.”
Taking in the good means taking certain steps that encourage the brain to appreciate the good things happening all around us so that we balance out all the problems and challenges that the brain naturally notices. Not only is this a path to a happier life—it also can help build the psychological resources needed to be a more calm, confident and capable person. Here’s how to do it…
Notice something positive when you’re feeling negative. There likely are lots of things you could feel good about even when life seems bleak. The challenge is that these feel-good things might be stuff that you take for granted because they seem ordinary and inconsequential.
Examples: You could feel good about the fact that you live in a safe community surrounded by trustworthy neighbors…that you have a roof over your head and enough food to eat…or that the building you are in is heated or cooled to a comfortable temperature.
The fact that people have come to take these things for granted does not mean that they are not wonderful and worth appreciating. Throughout human history, people often have lacked these things. Stop taking them for granted for a moment, and you could start to turn around your bad day.
Once you identify something positive—either something important such as the love of your spouse or something smaller such as your favorite comfy chair—resist the temptation to immediately set it aside and focus on whatever problem currently is competing for your attention. Instead, spend 10 to 20 seconds with the positive thought. Explore it, and enjoy it. Picture yourself absorbing it, as if it were warmth spreading throughout your body. Consider what, specifically, you find rewarding about this positive thing.
Seeing the reward in something triggers the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. These neurotransmitters flag the experience for storage in your long-term memory. The more positive, rewarding experiences you add to your long-term memory, the more you will come to see your life in a positive light.
Examples: If you enjoy taking off your shoes after a long day, ask yourself, Why does taking my shoes off feel so rewarding? Maybe it’s because your feet feel an instant surge of comfort. If you enjoy talking to your grown child on the phone, ask yourself, Why are these conversations so rewarding? Maybe they give you a sense of being loved.
Divide experiences into their components. We generally take in an experience as if it were a single unit—we enjoyed our trip to our favorite vacation destination…or enjoyed reading a book by our favorite author. But any experience actually can be divided into a handful of components—our thoughts…our sensations…our emotions…our desires…and our actions. Focusing separately on these components creates additional opportunities to have positive feelings—and even when an overall experience is not pleasant, we can dial in to some component of it that is.
Example: Most books we read will not give us as much enjoyment as a book written by our favorite author, but we still can focus on the pleasurable sensation of relaxation we get when reading almost any book.
Here’s how we can use these five components to take in the good—even when an overall experience is not good…
• Thoughts. Look for a good idea or positive insight that you derived from the less-than-great experience.
Example: A man who divorced his wife realized, Neither of us was a bad person, we just got busy with our own lives and stopped putting enough time and effort into each other. The breakup had been among the worst experiences of his life, but the above realization helped him see himself and his ex-wife in a more positive light and served as inspiration to do better in his current relationship.
• Sensations. Tasting a juicy piece of fruit…seeing a beautiful dress…smelling freshly baked bread. A pleasant sensation can be a powerfully positive thing even during a difficult day. Pleasant sensations do not just make us feel momentarily satisfied, they also have an analgesic effect, literally reducing any pain we might be feeling.
Example: A man who is having a terrible morning at work finds himself staring out his office window, sipping a cup of coffee, lamenting how things went wrong. His day might suddenly seem brighter if he focuses on the sensation of seeing the peaceful view outside the window…or the sensation of smelling or tasting the coffee.
• Emotions. Emotions include both fleeting feelings and longer-lasting moods. What most people do not realize is that they can encourage their positive feelings to stick around and become good moods.
When something happens that gives you a positive feeling in a small way that ordinarily would soon pass, focus on this event and your feelings about it for 10 seconds or longer. There’s a good chance your mood will improve. Examples: Someone holds a door for you…someone says, “You look nice today”…you have a warm memory about a family member or a beloved pet…or you hear an upbeat song. Don’t waste these positive mini-experiences!
• Desires. Some things we desire are good for us…some are bad for us. But any desire can be used to take in the good. When you desire something positive—something that could make life better for you or others—simply spend a little time appreciating this desire. Surprisingly, reflecting on the fact that we desire to do something positive for ourselves (such as exercise) or for the world (such as volunteering with a charity) can make us feel positive even if we have not yet done these things.
When you desire something that isn’t good for you or the world, focus not on the desire itself but on your ability to delay or stop yourself from acting on it.
Example: You desire a sugary dessert but are trying to cut back. Focus on the sense of satisfaction and self-worth you get from standing up to this desire even if you cannot always stand up to it.
• Actions. When you take a positive action—something that you would like to encourage yourself to do more often—in response to a negative incident, remain focused on your action for at least 10 seconds after its completion.
Example: A woman who considers herself overly passive stands up straight and tells a man what she thinks of him when he cuts in front of her in line at a coffee shop. She then spends 10 seconds thinking about her willingness to calmly and confidently stand up to this man (a positive)…rather than focusing on the man’s unpleasant behavior (a negative). This significantly increases the odds that the entire event will be stored in her memory as a positive experience.