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When you walk into your kitchen, what do you notice first, the beautiful flowers on the counter or dirty dishes in the sink?
If it's the dirty dishes, that would be quite common – noticing the negative before the positive.
Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and best-selling author, reported that we're evolutionarily wired to notice bad over good. This clearly made sense 200,000 years ago for our ancestors who were trying to avoid threats and survive.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to reorganize itself and change its hardwiring structures over our lifetime. This can be both positive and negative for our mental health. If we're not aware that our brain has a natural bias to notice negativity first, and we don't know that we can train it to see more positively, we risk becoming more prone to focusing on negativity. This can impact our thinking, emotions and general mental health. As negativity becomes more intense, it can result in increased risk for mental illness such as depression.
It's beneficial to understand some basic brain research in order to take positive action to offset thinking patterns that promote negative plasticity. With proper treatment and support, we can learn to stop negativity and repair the brain so it can become more positively wired. This is the micro skill of thinking of the positives first.
This micro skill leverages lessons learned from meditation. They promote the benefits of being patient when learning this skill and not judging yourself, just noticing and then gently refocusing your attention. When you walk into a situation, approach it with the intention of looking for the positive. By being aware that your brain is naturally biased, and reminding and refocusing, you can train it to find the positive first.
If you've been overly prone to see the negative first and have a difficult time seeing the positive, this can be changed if you really want to. For this micro skill to work it's necessary to understand and accept that only you can directly impact your brain to increase its positive plasticity. If you can't seem to do it alone, professionals can help you learn how. Positive change begins with awareness, and requires self-motivation. If you're committed to find more of the positives in your life, this can benefit your mental health over time.
Your brain's wiring is impacted by your habitual thinking habits. The more you create positive plasticity, the more likely you'll wire more happiness into your brain.
1. Search for the positives.
Before you walk into your home after work, make a commitment that you'll notice three positives before allowing your brain to focus on a negative. You can take this practice to work, team sports and relationships. This trains your brain to look for the positive over the negative. If your brain goes to a negative, don't judge it; release it and move on to find the positive.
2. Give the positive more air time and importance.
It's common for people when they get together to talk about what's not working and focus on negatives. Make a commitment to give the positives more air time when you interact with others. By focusing on the positive and talking about it you create conditions and expectations for your brain to notice more positives, so you have more to share. This activity can influence others to think positively, which will help them as well.
3. Refocus to the positive.
Life isn't perfect, so there will be times when you have a challenge that's not positive and you want it over with. The key is to move away from the negative, because it inhibits you from finding a solution. By acknowledging the challenge and changing your focus to finding a solution – a positive – you move your attention away from the fear centre of the brain to turn on other parts that drive decision making and planning. This helps to increase your resiliency and move through life's challenges and setbacks.
Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.
This article supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award. This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.
You can find all the stories in this series at:tgam.ca/workplaceaward