There has been much research in recent times demonstrating the way that our brains adapt and change in response to habits we can incorporate into our lives. The Neuroscientist, Rick Hanson, has developed a contemplative practice called Taking in the Good. Central to this practice, is the understanding that our brains have developed over centuries to have a preferential leaning towards bad experiences and feelings. Hanson describes our brains as being "teflon for good experiences and velcro for bad".
This nervousness and reactivity helped our ancestors survive, but it doesn't always serve us well in the hyper stimulated world we live in today.
Most of us have had the experience of receiving feedback on a performance with the vast majority of it being positive, and yet we focus on that one piece of feedback on opportunities for growth, that one negative comment, the one time we perhaps didn't live up to the high expectations so many of us set for ourselves. The inevitable result is that it's easy to be overwhelmed by feelings of pessimism and threat.
To counter this natural bias of the brain, the practice of taking in the good involves an intentional savouring of the many positive experiences we all encounter daily, but so often let slip by unnoticed. Trying to suppress our negative experiences, and reactions to them, only results in a sense of strain and stress and tension - a one way street to greater anxiety in our lives. Far more effective is to foster positive experiences and to intentionally "take them in" so that they become a part of you, and form a bank of resilience to be drawn on through some of the more trying times in life.
Hanson recommends three steps in this practice:
1. Turn positive facts into positive experiences:
Good things happen to all of us all the time. Actively look for these, rather than letting your attention skim over them. Actively looking for these experiences: the smile from a loved one, the smell of your morning coffee, the anticipation of catch up with a friend, allows you to bring mindful awareness to the small every day events rather than letting them slip away unnoticed.
2. Savour the experiences:
When you do notice these experiences, stay with them for longer than you normally would. Our attention habitually flitters away looking for the next thing, unless we intentionally place it upon these experiences, and the feelings they elicit, and stay with them for 5, 10 or 20 seconds. Savouring these experiences increases our enjoyment of them, and done often enough, actually changes our brains, by embedding them in our neural pathways in the form of memories and bodily sensations.
When we practice savouring the positive emotions that come from these experiences, they eventually become an internalised part of us. And in doing so, we build a bank of positive experiences that can be drawn on at any time, rather than having to be sought in our external environment.
3. Let the experiences sink in:
To really supercharge these positive experiences, allow these feelings to really sink in to your body and mind. Make an effort to relax your body and mind and absorb the thoughts, emotions and sensations associated with these experiences.
When you lean towards the positive in life, you correct the neural imbalance in our brains that can see us scanning for the threats, the rejection and the danger that can become a natural tendency if we don't intentionally internalise positive experiences.
And there's good reason for us to make an effort to take in the good. Intentionally focusing on what's positive, and then savouring these experiences, increases positive emotions. And positive emotions don't just feel good (although this is reason enough to engage in these practices). When we embed these practices in our lives, they produce tangible results including a stronger immune system and a cardiovascular system that is less damaged by normal stresses in life. They increase resilience and resourcefulness, and the more we have good experiences today, the more likely we are to have them tomorrow.
Taking in the good, is not about pretending to be happy when we're not, nor is it about denying those aspects of life that are painful or traumatic. It's about recognising the benefits to ourselves and those around us of nourishing our sense of wellbeing and contentment, and cultivating habits that bring us closer to these states.
Have you ever made an intention to look for the good in life, and has it made a difference for you?