For many of us, it’s second nature to focus on the negative. We tend to dwell on criticisms (while brushing off compliments), and brace ourselves for the worst possible outcomes. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry ($16; amazon.com).
In her new book, she explains how cynical thought habits develop (remember we humans evolved to focus on threats for survival), and how you can rewire your brain to “transcend negativity.” The ultimate goal, she says, is to experience the world in a more optimistic—and realistic—way.
And it’s worth the effort: A recent study by Harvard University researchers found that women with an optimistic outlook were less likely to die of top killers like cancer, infection, and heart disease. We tapped Breuning, who is a professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay, to learn how to remove our crisis goggles, and prioritize positivity for a more balanced and healthier life. Read on for simple steps you can take starting today.
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Pause for positivity three times a day
The brain’s neural pathways are shaped during childhood and adolescence, Breuning explained in an interview: “Our early experiences create superhighways in the brain where electricity flows effortlessly.” As a result, by the time we finish puberty, we’re biased toward certain paths of thinking, like finding the “bad” in most situations.
The best way to carve new pathways is through repetition, says Breuning. It might feel weird at first, but you can redirect your thinking habits by taking note of positive things in your life three times a day for six weeks.
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If you need inspiration for what to feel positive about, Breuning recommends appreciating your micro-accomplishments: “I’m not talking résumé things,” she says. Instead, focus on little choices you made that worked out well. It could be something as simple your decision to wear waterproof boots because of the foul weather predicted that day. “Your inner mammal is worried about survival, so it’s going to panic about every choice unless the brain circuit for feeling good about your decisions is as well-developed as the brain circuit for feeling bad about your decisions,” she says.
Set realistic expectations
It sounds counterintuitive, but it can really help to stop expecting greatness from yourself. “On the one hand, you don’t want to think, Nothing ever goes right for me. But on the other hand, many of us are coached to avoid that hopelessness with excessively grandiose expectations,” says Breuning. And when we can’t meet those expectations, we feel like failures.
To sidestep this vicious cycle, it’s best to set realistic goals that are within your control—and appreciate the journey, even if you don’t get there. For example, choose a doable goal (say, learning to do a chin-up), and make an effort to enjoy the process (building the muscle memory and strength required), no matter the outcome. “That’s really the secret to life,” says Breuning. “Enjoying the steps.”
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Mix up the simple pleasures in your life, and you may appreciate them even more: “Our brains are designed to look for reward, but any reward that you already have stops triggering your happy chemicals,” says Breuning. “That’s how dopamine works.” In other words, instead of feeling content once a specific need is met, we tend to shift our attention on other needs. It’s a phenomenon known as habituation.
So how can you manage it? The answer involves embracing variety. Take this real-world example: If you love red wine, try having a glass just three days a week rather than every single night, to preserve your brain’s ability to enjoy it when you do have it. The aim is not to suffer, but to find alternative things that make you feel good, while also training yourself to derive more pleasure from the thing you already know you love. “Above all,” says Breuning, “variety is going to give you the most feeling of reward.”