Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to the negative, and for good reason. Our ancestors, who were alert, watchful and worried, survived. Those who weren’t were eaten.
But today our DNA’s disposition puts us into a state of unnecessary chronic stress – stress that raises our blood pressure, causes anxiety or depression and hurts our health in many ways.
“To survive better in our 21st-century lives, it’s important to learn to react less automatically and negatively to the stresses that bombard us. We can do this by practicing skills that increase our capacity for appreciation, and for calming our bodies and minds,” said Renée Burgard, LCSW, a psychotherapist who teaches mindfulness and stress reduction classes at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and at Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Apple.
One way is to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude,” Burgard said – and gratitude is about more than saying thanks.
“Gratitude is paying attention to what we have, and cultivating a heartfelt sense of appreciation for it,” she noted.
In short, it’s rewiring your brain to counteract the negativity bias by paying attention to what’s positive. Research shows that people who focus on gratitude feel better, sleep better and are less likely to feel depressed. They’re also more generous to others. And, in studies of adolescents, they’re happier in school. But you can’t just snap your fingers and feel gratitude.
“It’s important not to force it,” Burgard said. “Instead, pay attention to what you appreciate, and what you feel thankful for. It takes practice.”
Following are Burgard’s three simple ways to get started.
What’s not wrong?
When you’re tense or upset, ask yourself, “What’s not wrong?” This practice, from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, helps you find the good in your life during hard times. You may be insanely busy on a project, but you have work that you enjoy. You may be fighting with your spouse, but you have a shared family you love. No matter what the situation, stop for a minute to consider what’s not wrong.
“It’s hard to access gratitude sometimes,” Burgard said. “What’s not wrong is a bridge to gratitude. It’s a way to think about positive things in our lives without forcing it.”
Three good things
“Each night before you go to sleep, think of three good things – or ‘not wrong’ things – that happened that day,” Burgard said. “Write them down, and spend a little time reflecting on what brought those things into your life.”
This is a classic gratitude practice that helps you pay attention to the positive in your life.
Take in the good
This practice is from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist who wrote the book “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence” (Harmony, 2013). Think back to a positive experience, and remember everything you can about it. Relive it in your mind. Breathe in deeply, taking in the pleasantness. Then breathe out and imagine that you’re sending the pleasantness to every cell of your body.
“By focusing on and staying with a pleasant memory, you’re rewiring your brain,” Burgard said. “Remember, our brains are Velcro for negative and Teflon for positive. You need to stay with pleasant memories and events to make them stick.”
If you’re glued to your smartphone, you can take your gratitude practice with you wherever you go. Try the apps Gratitude! and Live Happy on the iPhone, or the Attitude for Gratitude Journal on the Android. There are many others – most inexpensive or free – so check around.
And if you’re inclined to dismiss the gratitude movement as psychobabble, take a moment to reconsider.
“Paying attention just once a day to what you appreciate is enough to have an effect on your life,” Burgard said. “There’s science behind it. Gratitude is a way to open the door to more happiness.”