It’s easy to be frightened, to feel cynical, to judge and criticize, to feel envy or jealousy, and to generally drop into a place of contention without even noticing. Our culture gives us nonstop messages of needing things to be other. It keeps us seeking the next best thing, rarely supporting the value of stopping, stopping to enjoy the good that is already here just as it is. And especially in this tempestuous political season, it’s crucial to take some time to notice what is actually and already good in our lives. Yes, even and especially now.
Rick Hansen, the neuropsychologist and author of The Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, teaches that the brain has a natural negativity bias - it’s like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Our basic survival instinct recognizes and latches onto danger with much greater speed and strength than it does peace, joy, love or even the general sense that things are actually alright. In fact, he often says that when we take the time to notice, we see that we’re almost always basically alright, right now. Think about that. It’s absolutely correct. When we truly stop and check-in in this moment, though we may not be entirely happy or satisfied our basic needs for safety, food, shelter and a companion or two are likely covered.
While we’re naturally wired to sense and react to danger before goodness, we can significantly influence our automatic responses – the negativity bias can be changed. Research consistently shows that by training the mind, we can change the brain.
The Buddha said “what one frequently thinks and ponders upon becomes the inclination of the mind.” For me, I know that if I keep playing the worn out tape of an old painful relationship, what happened, what didn’t happen, I’ll get stuck in the hardened ruts of the story. I’ll likely become sad or resentful, angry or hurt all over again. The repetitive thoughts themselves will strengthen the imprint of the memory in my brain making the negative feelings easy to access, easy feel, cloud my mind and lead nowhere good.
I’ve heard it said that repetitive thoughts are a dead end, and it doesn’t take much rumination to know this is true. When I can recognize those dead-end thought loops, I can more easily stop the habitual thought pattern, recognize it for what it is, and avoid replaying the story.
The same is also true for good memories, good thoughts, and positive experiences - those that nurture and support our well-being and bring happiness. They, too, imprint in the memory. When we deliberately look for the good, take in and recognize joy, happiness, love, a sense of things being basically alright, we direct the mind towards well-being. When we intentionally take the time to let it in and soak it up, we reinforce the neural pathways in the brain that support our sense of happiness.
Give it a try right now. Take the next few minutes to think about your day today. Try to think of something you enjoyed, something that makes you smile even a little bit. Or perhaps take a look around. Do you see something lovely or beautiful nearby? Pause and notice it, let yourself take it in. How does this feel in your body? What about your mind?
No matter what we choose, these moments of noticing goodness are vital to our well-being. By actively supporting and reinforcing our ability to see the good in the first place, new habit patterns take root and grow. Happiness grows, even and especially now.