Imagine you do a presentation at work and then everyone in your team has to give you feedback. If five of those people compliment your work and one person criticises it which will you remember later? Which one could keep you up at night ruminating about it?

If you’re like most of us, it’s the crappy comment that keep you up at night. The criticism gets highlighted in our mind because of what is known as the ‘negativity bias’.

This bias towards the negative is completely normal. As the human mind evolved over the last 200,000 years, it was vitally important to pay attention to threats quickly and learn from negative experiences so that we could outwit predators and avoid dangers.

Imagine a caveman walking outside his cave and on the one side is a beautiful rainbow and on the other is a sabre tooth tiger. Obviously if he pauses to take in that rainbow it could easily be the last one he will ever see!

Evolution brought us here

So the human mind has evolved in such a way that it registers negative experiences very quickly and highlights them and stores them in memory. This helped us remember how to avoid potential future threats.

Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson often uses the metaphor that positive experiences are like teflon for the mind – they slip right off – whereas negative experiences are like velcro. This is a great metaphor for understanding how ‘sticky’ negative experiences can be in the mind.

On the other hand, positive experiences don’t register in the same way. They need to be held in awareness for some time before they get stored in our memory. That rainbow is not as important to remember as the predator to our survival machine mind.

Wearing crap coloured glasses

But the challenge is this. We don’t live in a world where there are constant threats and dangers like the thousands of years gone by, but our mind still operates in the same way. Although this bias towards the negative may have been a useful survival strategy in the past it is not a good strategy for thriving and being happy in todays world.

Getting stuck in the negativity bias is like wearing crap coloured glasses. Nothing is ever good enough. We tend to continuously ruminate on what’s not going well, what is not good enough and fixate on our problems we develop a growing tendency to be pessimistic, self critical, stressed and even depressed.

We also become more sensitive to upsets and grievances and resentments. This affects our relationships, our self esteem, our mood, our health and our overall quality of life.

I think of it sometimes like an out of date bit of software running in the human mind. It’s no longer adaptive to todays world so it needs us to train it to update.

So how do we counter this negativity bias?

Well it all boils down to a simple principle: What ever you practice grows stronger.

If you practice compassion, you become a more kind and compassionate person. If you practice being more mindful, you become a more mindful person. If you practice dwelling on whats is good in your life you become a more positive grateful person.

Over time, with a bit of practice we can overcome the negativity bias, train our to see life in a more clear and balanced way, and grow strength, calm and happiness from within. As a neuroscientist might say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more time you give training your brain to take in the good, the more it becomes and ingrained way of being.

Taking In the Good: A Three Step Process to Use Daily

Rick Hanson has a wonderful technique I’d like to share that can help you reshape your brain’s neural pathways. It will help you allow your positive emotions to sink in and balance out your negativity bias.

The technique has three basic stages. First he advises us to deliberately seek out good experiences each day. They can be simple, like appreciating the beauty in your garden, enjoying a nice cup of tea or coffee or feeling the sun on your skin. So you deliberately want to cultivate these moments of taking in good in your life. This helps you to activate your brain and start the process of taking in the good.

Secondly you want to then enrich the experience. To do this stay with the good experience for at least five seconds. Open up to the body sensations, feelings and all that is happening in the moment. Drink in the the good experience fully, letting it fill your mind and body and build in intensity.

As you do this, the experience will move from your short-term to your long-term memory which is important in rewiring your brain to take in more good. This may take a little time, as you want to truly connect with these feelings. Allow the experience to sink into your being as you truly engage with it. Feel the joy as you appreciate and savour the experience within you.

The third step is to then absorb the experience. Allow the experience to really sink in. Set the intention to make it feel part of you and take it with you in memory.

This technique can be used to help you truly appreciate and enjoy the positive moments in your life. The more we take in the good, the more we can see and experience life in a more balanced way. It’s not that we ignore negative experiences and we won’t stop bad things from happening as they are a natural part of life…but we can take control of how we perceive them so that we don’t become overwhelmed by that negativity bias.

So today and for the rest of this week, see if you can focus on taking in the good like this. Taking a moment to consider now… What are some good aspects in your daily life that you don’t usually notice? What is beautiful that you can appreciate and enjoy and savour as you go about your days?

As you cultivate this capacity for taking in the good you’ll notice a shift in your perceptions towards a more positive view of life. You’ll likely also experience a new lightness of heart and mind and a little more joy and wonder flowing into your days.

Learn the Art of Mindful Living with Melli O'Brien: