The other day I was walking into town while listening to a great audiobook and I was feeling incredible. I could feel the cold crisp air invigorating my lungs, while I observed people rushing by, and leaves dancing around.

Then something happened. The narrator said something funny, and it made me smile.

Suddenly, two people walking in the opposite direction gave me a strange look, as if to say “what are you so happy about?”

I didn’t care, so I kept enjoying my positive state. But I’m sure you’ve been in a similar situation. Or maybe someone even asked you “what are you so happy about?”.

Isn’t it odd that we have to justify our own happiness, but we rarely question negative states? If someone’s frowning and immerse in negative thoughts, it’s “all good”, but if someone’s smiling, they must be a bit weird.

A brain that doesn’t help

It doesn’t help that we are wired to be much better at spotting negative things.

The human brain evolved over time, and though some areas are 10,000 years old, others have been passed on for the last 4 million years. It’s great at keeping you alive, but it’s not so great at making you happy.

The brain is constantly scanning the environment around you, looking for potential danger.
Technically, this happens in the Reticular Activating System, the filter that decides what information gets passed from the nervous system to the brain.
Potential dangers and recurrent thoughts are usually what gets through.

Negativity has priority access to our attention.

It doesn’t end here.

Research has shown that negative emotions narrow your mind, focusing your thoughts on the problem.
When you’re chased by a sabertooth tiger, that’s very useful. Your mind is one-pointed towards running for your life. Survival is the main and only objective.
But when you’re chased by daily fears, recurring thoughts, or gloomy headlines about the possible and imaginary outcomes of the Trump presidency, running for your life won’t help. And surviving isn’t a good enough daily objective.

This creates a vicious circle, where negativity breeds more negativity, your mind can only think about the problem, and your thoughts become so focused that you stop noticing the positives around you.

The negativity bias: negative thoughts stick

There’s more.

One of the main cognitive biases that skew our rational judgement of what we observe, is known as the negativity bias. This manifests in the greater effect that unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or experiences have on our psychological state compared to more positive or neutral ones. Studies have shown that, though positive emotions appear more frequently throughout the day, we tend to recall negative emotions more when thinking back.

negative thoughts vs positive thoughts

How many times have you let a small negative experience take over your whole day? I know I have.

We tend to expect positive behaviour and to get used to positive experiences, so when something negative happens, it sticks.

But it’s not all bad news. I have some positivity for you.

The long-term effects of positive thoughts

Positive thoughts are associated with lower stress, better mood levels, and lower risk of inflammation and illness.
In a study from 2003, researchers split a group in two: one half was asked to write about a control topic, the other half to write about intensely positive experiences for three consecutive days.
90 days later, the group that wrote about positive experiences reported enhanced mood levels and far fewer health centre visits related to illnesses. After only 3 days of writing down positive experiences!

Here’s the paradox: positive thoughts enable you to get out of a negative situation, and create more positivity.

As negative thoughts and experiences activate the amygdala, the ancient part of the brain responsible for survival and automated behaviour (like driving), you forget about the future.
The fight-or-flight system doesn’t handle abstract thinking very well, as it’s made to concentrate on the now and then.

Positive thoughts broaden your focus and allow the prefrontal cortex to kick in and imagine things that don’t exist yet. Like the future. You can make a plan. You can take action. You can create more positivity.

how to stop negative thoughts
Just like negativity creates a vicious circle, positivity creates a virtuous one.

So, where do we start?

How to increase positivity to stop negative thoughts

To increase positivity in your life and kickstart the virtuous cycle, you can increase exposure to positive experiences, and then cultivate appreciation. This will multiply the impact of positivity, and even transform existing experiences you’re overlooking into positive ones.
Appreciation trains your mind to notice what goes right, and not just what goes wrong.

Schedule in happy activities

We don’t even question scheduling another meeting in our morning. Or adding an extra chore to our to-do list. But when it comes to adding value to our energy and mood levels, we tend to leave things to the last minute. (This is why I suggest using the morning to invest in yourself).

Don’t feel guilty about scheduling time to experiment and play: whether it’s experiencing something new, doing a physical activity, or anything else that allows you to smile and experience a positive state of mind, make sure you make time for it.

Use your body to condition your mind

Your body follows your psychological state. As you become tense, you use different (more) facial muscles, your chest and shoulders become tense, and your breathing moves to your chest and becomes more shallow. Change your physiology, and your psychology will follow.

The easiest way to do this is to use breathing techniques. Take a deep breath in your belly for 5 seconds. Then hold it in for 5 seconds. Then breath out for 5 seconds. Enjoy the air flowing in and out of your lungs. Hold it out for 5 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

Distance yourself from negative thoughts

Distancing yourself from negative thoughts and situations allow you to engage the prefrontal cortex, and start some longer-term problem solving while opening your mind to opportunities around you.
To distance yourself, observe your negative situation as an external third party. This will give you a new perspective, but also put enough distance between you and your thoughts to allow you to take action.
You can also move your thoughts in time: by creating imagined temporal distance, you buy yourself enough space to rationally plan and start to create change.

Check what your brain eats

Our thoughts are the result of what we expose ourselves to. The people you surround yourself with, the feeds you follow on social media, the outlets you read, and the programmes you watch, all determine what your thoughts will be tomorrow. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can deflect the negative stimuli in your day: your willpower is way too limited for that to be true, and our tribal nature makes us fit in, whether we want it or not.
Cut out people that drain you, irrelevant information that brings negativity to your day, and activities that bring you down.

Increase appreciation

To increase appreciation, all you have to do is train yourself to notice what’s going right.
Making meditation a daily habit is a great start to increase your awareness of the present moment. You learn to observe the many amazing daily moments to counterbalance the few negatives.
Keeping a gratitude journal is also a great way to plan your day in the morning and then look back and notice what was good in the evening, instead of lingering on the few things that didn’t quite go as planned.
I like to use the 5 Minute Journal right after waking up and just before bed. Here’s the full review of my experience with the paper journal and the app.

Your duty to share positivity

One of the most powerful ways to increase your own positivity is to help others.
Research has shown multiple times the positive impact that helping others has on the wellbeing, mood, and stress levels of the person providing support to someone else.
A recent study from Harvard Medical School has shown that volunteering monthly can boost your happiness to levels comparable to those found in people going from a $20,000 to a $75,000 annual income. Helping others can make you rich.

In a world where headlines use fear to sell clicks, while many of us go on social media to vent about what’s going wrong in their day, it is our duty to share the positives and show others that we can learn to notice what’s going right. We can all be lucky, we just need to be shown where to look.

— Matt

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