According to neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, from his book Hardwiring your brain for Happiness, in order for our ancestors to survive they had to avoid predators, starvation and aggression from their species.
As he puts it : “Rule #1 in the wild- Eat lunch today – don’t be lunch today.”
As a result – we are programmed to pay more attention to bad stuff then good stuff . This negativity bias means, as Daniel Kahnemann showed in his Nobel prize winning work, that most of us will do more to avoid a loss than a gain.
So what does this mean to us?
Our brains are designed to learn and be changed by our experiences. Repeated mental activity will leave an imprint on our neural activity. Or as Hebb said “Neurons that fire together wire together.” So if we have been focusing on bad stuff like worries, stress and self criticism, we will be more susceptible to anger, sadness and guilt, whereas if we are focusing on good stuff like pleasant feelings, good intentions and the roof over our heads we can shape our brain to be more optimistic and resilient.
Robert Emmons, PhD, has spent over ten years studying the effects of a daily gratitude practice. According to a study by Emmons of over 1000 people, practicing gratefulness can create a wide range of positive changes in our lives – physically, emotionally and in our relationships.
In Emmons’ study, people who practiced gratitude on a regular basis:
- showed stronger immune systems
- were less bothered by aches and pains
- had lower blood pressure
- exercised more and took better care of their health
- slept longer and felt more refreshed upon waking, had higher levels of positive emotions
- were more alert, alive, and awake
- experienced more joy, pleasure
- optimism and happiness, were more helpful, generous, and compassionate
- more forgiving
- more outgoing
- and felt less lonely and isolated.
Not bad results for an investment of only a few minutes each day!
So how do we practice gratitude?
1) Keep a gratitude journal
Spend a couple of minutes a day writing down the things that make you feel good.
Making a conscious decision to focus on the good stuff allows you to take it in. Being conscious and aware of what it is that is going well shifts your attention from one of negativity to positivity.
2) Find triggers
Each day we brush our teeth, have a meal, stop at a traffic light.
Use these moments to connect to a happy moment or something you are grateful for. Keeping gratitude in the forefront of your brain will develop that gratitude muscle.
3) Replace complaints with gratitude
Begin to notice how often you complain and what it is you are complaining about. If there is a long line at the bank, perhaps this is an opportunity to practice patience. Develop a language of gratitude not criticism. Start to notice your gifts and blessings. Very often complaining is a way of connecting to others. Instead you can choose to connect through appreciation and what it is you treasure about others instead of what it is that makes you unhappy.