Feel the positive

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Leadership

Picture the scene : our hunter-gather ancestors sauntering across the savannah, enjoying the warmth of the sun on their faces, stopping to admire the view as they keep an eye out for something to catch for dinner.

If this were really the case, I wouldn’t be here to write this blog because the human race would have been wiped out by predators thousands of years ago.

Built to last

Right from our evolutionary beginnings as primitive organisms, our nervous sytem has evolved to prioritise avoiding danger. Fast forward to our early human ancestors 200,000 years ago who would be far likely to see another day if they worried that there was a tiger in the bushes rather than there wasn’t.

Our survival has been dependent on an inbuilt negativity bias designed to scan the horizon – quite literally in our ancestors’ case – for threats.

Unfortunately, the legacy for many of us is a tendency for constant worry and doubt. We’re more likely to worry these days about whether we say something stupid in a presentation than a potential threat to our life.

However, our brain can’t tell the difference between the risk of discomfort in a boardroom, and the risk of a sabre-toothed tiger in the bushes – it just senses a threat to our wellbeing.

We’re not hardwired : we can change our brain.

The good news is that we have the power to worry less and feel more positive, because the brain is the most malleable organ in the body.

You might have heard the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together”? Our neural pathways develop based on what we experience, a concept called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Intense, prolonged or repeated activity imprints on our neural structure, whether that’s piano practice or worrying.

The good news is that we can self-direct neuroplasticity through choosing what we focus on and taking it in. For example, the more we look for and absorb the positive, the more positive experiences we’ll generate. Over time, we’ll feel happier, more positive and less stressed and anxious, as well as improving our health, immune system and longevity.

Feel the positive don’t just think about it

The key to changing our brain for the better is to feel positive experiences not just think about them.

As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, our brain is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones. It has served our continued survival for our brain to take on board negative experiences straightaway whereas positive experiences take around 10 – 20 seconds to be absorbed.

If you find compliments bounce off you, that’s down to your brain’s Teflon coating. Which is why we need to work hard to “take in the good”, as Hanson calls it.

Three good things

When we’ve learned to be vigilant for the negative – for example, for things that don’t feel right or that might go wrong – it can be challenging to look for the positive. In an ideal world, we would notice positive experiences as we go about our day, and spend a few moments really feeling each experience.

A daily practice that I’ve been doing at bedtime, and that many of my clients have found useful too, is the Three Good Things exercise.

Recall and jot down three good things that have happened in your day. Then close your eyes and relive each experience for 10 to 20 seconds, really feeling the positive sensations in your body, a bit like bathing in warm sunshine.

Remember your brain can’t distinguish between imagination and reality, so your body will be responding as if the experience is happening.

It doesn’t matter whether your good things are really small – like the taste of your first cup of coffee of the day – or really big, like being told you’ve been promoted. As far as the brain’s concerned, it’s the positive emotion associated with the event that is key to changing your neural pathways.

I often find that I think of more positive experiences to add to the list as I make the effort to recall them. One coaching client, Elizabeth*, shared yesterday that a wonderful childhood memory arose for her that hadn’t crossed her mind for ages.

It’s a bit like going to the gym, but far less strenuous and time-consuming and far more enjoyable. After only a couple of weeks’ practice, Elizabeth is noticing that she’s feeling more positive more often.

Trust that you are changing your brain for the better even if you can’t see it happening and be alert for clues that your outlook on the world is becoming more positive.

*Elizabeth is a fictional leader based on real-life clients

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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