Above is a collage of some of the things on Caroline’s summer list of happiness. which includes forest walks, swimming in lakes, sunsets, farmers’ markets and fresh local vegetables and fruit, poutine, cafe au lait, flowers, and, of course, ice cream! Photos courtesy: Caroline Ishii.
OTTAWA — You’re having a great day, and then someone says something critical that irritates or hurts you. Can you let it go quickly, or does it stay with you all day, week, month, or for a lifetime, repeating the words that wounded you?
There is a scientific reason why negative events impact our brains more than positive ones.
What is negativity bias?
According to author Kendra Cherry, who says on the mental health website Verywell Mind, because of the brain’s built-in “negativity bias,” we’re more likely to pay attention to the bad things that happen and feel the sting of a negative comment more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise. Cherry says the “bad things” grab our attention, stick to our memories, influence our decisions, and impact our relationships. Where does negativity bias come from?
“The evolutionary perspective suggests that this tendency to dwell on the negative more than the positive is simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe,” says Cherry.
She explains that earlier in human history, paying attention to harmful, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was a matter of life and death. Those more attuned to danger and paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive, which meant they were also more likely to hand down those genes that made them more attentive to danger.
Psychologist and internationally renowned Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says negative emotions go directly to the heart while positive feelings, like happiness, are fleeting moments. So, Brach says we must encourage joyful times to stay longer by marinating in them longer.
Being a chef and food-lover, I love this way of thinking about happiness. But how do we “marinate in happiness” when negative emotions are always “ready to eat”?
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, believes we can overcome the brain’s negativity bias and hardwire happiness over time.
Hanson says the more we can take in the good, the more we can control the bad. He defines ‘taking in the good’ as being proactive in transferring positive experiences from our short-term to long-term memory to absorb them. How do we do this?
Savouring positive moments
Hanson says when you have a positive experience, take the time to savour it, even if it’s for 10 to 20 seconds.
“The longer you hold something in your awareness, the more it can sink into your neural structure,” he says. “This means that the amount of time you stay with a positive moment will help to move that positive experience from a state (a fleeting moment) to a trait (a longstanding characteristic).”
He suggests you replay the joyful moment several times in your memory and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes more than the event details.
“The more you feel it in your body, the more that it has an emotional quality to it,” says Hanson.
Liking without wanting
While embracing good moments is important, Hanson warns of holding on to them. He says “liking” great experiences with characteristics such as enjoying, appreciating, and relishing, encourages good feelings to last organically.
However, he warns that “wanting” characteristics like insistence, compulsion, pressure, and craving, result in a good experience becoming lost. “You’re no longer flowing with the experience and are instead standing apart from it trying to freeze and possess it,” he says.
Ice cream for happiness
I love watching children eating ice cream. They focus on eating the ice cream, not caring that it is melting all over their faces and hands, and running down their arms. They don’t care what others are thinking. They are lost in the deliciousness of the moment. They are happy. While their ice cream may be fleeting, they are not.
Instead of focusing on the moment when we are eating, we are often too busy thinking of what we will do next or replaying a situation that happened to us before. Or we look at our phones to keep us company while eating. I am guilty of this too. We lose opportunities to get lost in the moment of the ice cream.
Tara Brach asked the Dalai Lama when was his happiest moment. “This moment is happiness,” he said.
The law of little things
Hanson writes that each time you practice savouring a positive moment, it is usually small in itself, but those moments add up. He calls this the “law of little things” and says that small efforts made routinely will gradually build up the “muscle” of your brain.
“You really can have confidence, grounded in the latest brain science, that practice will pay off,” he says.
Hanson says there is a Tibetan proverb: “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.” He explains that there is nothing we can do about the past, and we have limited influence over the hours and days to come. But the next minute—and minute after minute after minute—is always full of possibility.
For me, this means that when we’re present, we can be fully alive with what we’re feeling and eating. And this absorption and appreciation of what we can do at the moment with the life gifted to us lead to gratitude and happiness.
Summer happiness list
The opportunity to bring yourself happiness is waiting for you at every moment. Start your list of little things that bring you happiness in the summer, schedule them in your life, and marinate in each of them a little bit longer. The summer, like ice cream, melts too quickly! There’s lots of ice cream on my list. What’s on yours?
Wishing you a delicious summer!