Hold On Happy (HOH); Putting the Pause Button on Negativity Bias
In many classes and groups, I often start with a question. “Name three things that make you smile.” The first time someone asked me this question, I had a hard time answering it. I was working on my life coaching certification, and this was the question that started our five months of training.
As we work our way through and past the holiday season and into January, we will have many opportunities to experience happy moments with friends and family. The joy of gratitude and gift giving and the happy warmth of holiday miracles are everywhere. Even the local news usually has more positive stories this time of year.
Yet, when we are asked to pull up the details of these fun times that make us smile, many of us may struggle to recall them. However, ask us to recall something sad or negative and the memories of past hurts and struggles will flood back in droves.
Why is this?
It’s because negativity bias is a very real thing. A great deal of research over the years has shown that it’s much easier for us to “go negative” versus “go positive” in our thinking. It goes back to our DNA level. The flight or fight response is still very real for us, even though it’s no longer needed in modern times. When we hear a rustle in the bushes, our natural instinct from days of old is to believe it is something dangerous (think Saber Tooth Tiger) as opposed to something nice, like a friend or cute, small bunny. That’s because the downside of a mistake could be fatal for our distant ancestors. It was best to err on the side of caution and run, even if it was from a friend or small bunny. Even today, when we make up stories, they are often negative. If someone says they will call, and don’t, what do we assume? We think they are mad at us or even worse, they were in some accident and can’t call. We create elaborate stories of worry until we have something to change our impression.
So what can we do about this natural instinct of negativity? One tool I use is something I call “hold” on happy. Negative thoughts and impressions automatically go to long-term memory because of the strong emotional stimulation they cause when they trigger our fight or flight response. That is why they are so easy to pull back up. However, research has shown that positive and happy moments do NOT automatically go to long-term memory unless they are extremely strong and emotional, more so than their negative counterparts. However, we can choose to put more of these positive moments into our long-term memory banks. When something positive happens, stay with it for 12-20 seconds. Hold the feeling of joy, the heartfelt gratitude, and the feeling of warmth in a deliberate way instead of letting it pass by without recognition. When we “hold on happy,” we are literally taking a pause that will help our brain to store this positive memory for long-term use.
If we do this regularly, we can start to unwind and overshadow the natural tendency towards negative thought and change our patterns. So this holiday season and New Year, choose to deliberately store times of positivity and joy into your memory banks. It will become easier to focus on the positive instead of always defaulting to negative thinking as we go into a wonderful 2019!
Happy New Year!!