”Just think positively.” Those words annoy me, perhaps because they are often misused by well-meaning people. There is no point papering over the truth of things to “try” to think positively. Nor is there any value in self-delusion or denial. It’s important to be honest with yourself.
That said, if you have accepted your true feelings about something, given them expression, sifted through your worried thoughts and gotten to a place of mental clarity, it can really help to work with enhancing positive mental states and emotions. This includes thoughts, feelings, images, memories and body sensations that put you in touch with a sense of well-being.
We know about the brain’s bias toward negative stimuli, so now’s the time to get smart and apply some neuroscience in order to amp up the impact of your positive experiencing.
There are five key ways to cut through the brain’s apathy about taking in and being shaped by positive data:
- Make it last.
Feel the feelings and sensations. Give yourself permission for pleasure.
- Make it intense.
Greater intensity increases levels of norepinephrine. That in turn increases the number of synapses firing with the positive experiences. The more intensely pleasurable it feels, the more dopamine gets released, building the area in your brain firing with pleasure and helping to convert a momentary experience into a more lasting orientation. Breathe in the feelings, enlarge the positive sensations in your body, stay with the image of beauty or love in your mind.
- Take it in through different channels of perception.
See the smile on your child’s face. Smell that familiar mix of shampoo and walking home from school summer sweat. Listen to their story. Take note of strengths in their character. Notice how it feels in you to observe this. Where in your own body do you feel this sensation?
- Find what’s unique in the experience.
Your brain is always scanning for new and fresh sensations. When you notice what is new and fresh in an experience, you increase the chances of producing dopamine and ensuring the experience registers consciously with your brain. There’s a pool where I live and I’m a water baby. Every time I get in, something is different about the light on the water or the temperature or the background sounds or the visiting birds. There’s something subtle and new and beautiful each time.
- Find what matters to you in the experience.
I recently had a very busy trip to my hometown, reconnecting with friends. I was exhausted on my return, but very aware of how each encounter stimulated an aspect of me. I felt energized and full of new ideas and perspectives. I was aware of this playing out while it was happening and am sure it increased the strength of a sense of freshness and hopefulness about new directions for the year ahead. When your brain is aware of an experience that has personal relevance, it is more likely to store that memory and orientation.