The Science of Positivity

June 10, 2018

 

We often move through our days with a heavy To-Do List weighing on our minds and worries on our hearts. If we are not careful, apprehension pertaining to social pressures, work and school deadlines, health problems and any number of bothersome circumstances can monopolize nearly the whole of our attention. Turns out, there may be a neuronal reason underlying our occupation with the negative.


Over the centuries, due to our fight for survival, mankind has developed a “negativity bias”. This means that our brains tend to hone in on anything that appears to be threatening, firing up the body’s sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and thereby inhibiting our ability to think broadly, creatively,
positively, logically, etc. The described biological process is crucial in the event of real, life-threatening occurrences, but is not however constructive to our health, well-being, happiness, and success in our day-to-day lives.


On the flip side, there is overwhelming support that thinking positively rather than seeing through the clouded lens of negative stress allows us to build new skills, open our minds to possibilities, persevere, achieve goals, develop deeper relationships, and think bigger and more clearly.


What Is Happening Neurologically?
 

 Much like the muscles in the body, the strength of neuronal connections (in this case patterns of thought) are dependent in part upon how much they are used. Therefore, if we are trapped in an endless loop of apprehension and stress, those “negativity” pathways in our brains are only strengthened, causing ourselves to more easily default to certain ways of thinking and behaving in response to what we see as threatening stimuli. The above-mentioned sympathetic nervous system spares no time in doing its job - raising the heartbeat, priming muscles to fight or flee, narrowing and focusing thoughts on the threat, etc.

 

When we train ourselves to think positively, however, the “negativity” pathways weaken and more positive and constructive pathways are created and reinforced. As a result, we feel calmer, happier, and more capable as the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more dominant. Because our negative emotions are not causing us to draw upon more primitive, survival patterns of thought and reaction, we instead access the parts of our brain involved in higher-level thinking, build new skills, and see a broader range of possibilities. We then respond to life’s challenges in a much more effective and happier manner.

 

Our thoughts can often be a barrier to our own achievement and happiness, but they do not have to be. Rather, they are a significant means through which dreams and joy are accomplished.


What Now?
It’s time to become more conscientious of the way in which we are thinking. If you find yourself constantly barraged by anxiety, self-doubt, and negative thoughts, fight back! Challenge those thoughts. Rephrase them into a more truthful and positive outlook and then rehearse those positive statements. Actively seek out the good in each day rather than allowing it to pass through the senses without a second review and flit away. Take notice of and relish in the good. Give less time to negativity to cycle through your mind and find time to engage in those things that bring peace and joy, whether it be meditation or good old play time. You may be surprised just how opportunities and possibilities begin to unfold themselves, how relationships improve, and how simple tasks take on more meaning. Remember that excessive worry is simply a way of mentally practicing negative outcomes. Altering this habit may be difficult, but it is worth it as it may eliminate the smudges blurring the view through the window to your reality.

 

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Resources:

Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources

The Neuroscience of Happiness

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