Posted on August 15th, 2015 by Nicole Stokoe

Little by little, step by step

As part of this blog, I will be publishing a series of posts about how to improve the moment. I will be introducing simple, easy to use skills and guiding you though the theory and research behind them.

Notice three experiences you have enjoyed today – it could be as simple as enjoying that first cuppa of the day.

It is more effortful for us to notice the positive experiences in life – fact. Our brains have a ‘negativity bias’ meaning they are easily drawn towards negative or threatening stimuli in the environment. Not only that, our minds have a tendency to ignore, dismiss, overlook positive experiences. This has been shown through research demonstrating that the brain fires more electrical activity when shown negative or threatening stimuli compared to positive or neutral stimuli (Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo, 1998). Evolutionary psychology has explained this bias in terms of survival – being more alert to threat in the early cave man days meant that we were more able to protect and defend ourselves to survive. Of course, there are differences between people – we are all unique and individual after all. Some people can access their positivity more easily than others but it is still effortful in comparison to the negativity bias that pulls our attention towards possible threat (Ito & Cacioppo, 2005).

However, it’s not all ‘nature’ and biology. Although we are predisposed to notice the negative as a survival response, we can nurture and grow the ability to notice positive experiences. We are able, over time, to ‘re-train’ our brains to be more positive and to focus more on the pleasurable and enriching experiences in life. It is simply a case of changing the default habit to a new habit. Sounds easy right?! It does take time and lots of practice to learn – just as learning to drive a car for the first time takes time and practice. The metaphor below will help to explain this:

The Threat Controller

Imagine that your mind’s focus is a spot light in a light house operated by the ‘threat controller’. The ‘threat controller’ has been tasked with seeking out threat with the spot light so that plans for protection can be actioned quickly. The faster the threat is found, the more chance there is of surviving the attack. The ‘threat controller’ has had lots of practice at this over many years and is at the top of his game! If there is a threat out there, they will find it and quickly! Now imagine that we ask the ‘threat controller’ to start looking for positive experiences too. This may be difficult at the beginning. It may feel strange and uncomfortable, the ‘threat controller’ may not know what a positive experience looks like, they may forget or simply find it too difficult, eventually returning to old habits. It will be more effortful for the ‘threat controller’ to look for positives but with guidance, reminders, practice, support and maybe adapting the tools (e.g. widening the scope of the spot light) the ‘threat controller’ may get to the point of changing his job title to the ‘Experience Finder’. That is, to be open to all experiences rather than just the negative.

It’s the same for all of us. We all have a spotlight that we use to focus in on certain experiences. It may take more effort in the beginning to start refocusing your spotlight onto a wider spectrum of experiences other than mainly negative ones. To help you to become more aware of positive experiences, you may need to purposefully focus in on the positive experiences to start with. Writing down three positive experiences each day is one way of helping to retrain your brain to the new habit of noticing the positive.  

What are these positive experiences? It can be anything; that first cup of tea in the morning that tasted just right, feeling the heat of the sun on your skin, seeing someone smile – you know, really smile, the feeling of getting into bed after a long day. It really can be anything. It’s the noticing that is important.

To find out more about the ‘negativity bias’ and the research related to this, we think this article is really useful. 

Ito, T., & Cacioppo, J. (2005). Variations on a human universal: Individual differences in positivity offset and negativity bias. Cognition & Emotion, 19(1), 1-26.

Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(4), 887.