It’s an uphill battle we all go through.

Life presents us a challenge, big or small, and at some point, we decide to approach it with a positive mindset. But for whatever reason, something just keeps getting in the way. Maybe we have days where we manage to stay optimistic for 80% of the time, but the second we get tired or sick or hungry, all that cheerfulness is replaced by negativity. 

“Why do I have to deal with this?”

“This is ridiculous?”

“I don’t want to be doing this right now!”

The reality is, if our goal is to have a positive mindset, something IS standing in our way. Something huge; our brain. 

See, our brain developed in environments very different from the one we live in now. So evolution gave us what cognitive scientists call a negativity bias. This is the propensity of the mind to give more weight to negative information than positive information. It also means that more often than not, we perceive neutral information as negative.

Intuitively, we understand the negativity bias, because anyone with a human mind has lived with it at some point in time. Some people, however, manage to rewire their brain and make positivity their default attitude. Usually, this happens through sustained effort, but occasionally through luck or genetics. 

Before I jump into the different ways that you can begin to rewire your negativity bias, I want to first touch on some things that increase the pessimism habit. Some of these will be obvious, but it’s important to consider them in the context of the later strategies because they help you form a conceptual system for dealing with negativity. 

Stress. Any stress, whether physical or emotional, will supercharge the negativity bias. We see this when we’re sick or tired, and we become less tolerant and accepting of things in our experience.

Tension and pain. Where the body goes, the mind follows, and vice versa. Physical tension and pain will more often than not also cause mental tension and pain. 

Fear and trauma. Broadly speaking humans have two ways to deal with the world. One is open and free, and the other is closed and fearful. These will vary depending on your personal history, past traumas, culture and context, but it’s important to notice how fear and trauma – such as what we’ve seen with COVID-19 – can cause antisocial attitudes and behaviour. 

Egocentrism. These closed and open ways of dealing with the world are also linked to whether we are focused on protecting ourselves or focused on helping something bigger than ourselves. People who give their life to a greater cause can often seem more happy and positive. Part of this is because their mental content isn’t so acutely concerned with self-preservation.

The following list is by no means exhaustive. Anything that addresses stress, tension, pain, fear, trauma or egocentrism will tell our brains that we are safe and help to change our default focus from negative to positive.  

6 Ways To Rewire Your Brain To Focus On The Positive

#6. Negativity Fasting

What we consume on a mental level is as important as what we consume on a physical level. A psychologically nutritious diet should not include a heavy flow of negative information. Unfortunately with the way things are going into the third decade of this new millennium, day-by-day we are force-fed the mental equivalent of fast food. Limit this by turning off the news and reducing your social media use, reading optimistic books and only hanging around with people who are positive-minded.

Tips and Resources:

What is Negativity Fasting and can it make you happier? – Dave Asprey 

#5. Cognitive Reframing

This is pretty basic cognitive behavioural therapy. Take a negative thought such as “I can’t get up at 7 am every day” and change it to a positive (but realistic) one “I can get up at 7 am every day (though it may take a little extra effort). In my experience, this is quite a surface level tactic and doesn’t create deep change unless you take it very seriously. If, however, you consider cognitive reframing a practice, and you keep track of your negative thoughts with a journal, you can see some surprising changes.

Tips and Resources:

#4. Repetition and Habit Formation

This applies to pretty much any of the strategies on this list. Basically, the point I’m trying to make here is, chunk your tactic down into a manageable habit and repeat it over time until it becomes unconscious and natural. The best habit formation method I have come across is the work of Stanford Professor BJ Fogg. I actually took a training course in his habits coaching method a couple of years ago. Unless you’re specifically interested in mastering certain habits I wouldn’t spend much money – but I highly recommend his book.

Tips and Resources:

Book: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything – BJ Fogg

#3. Cosmic Humour

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” – Alan Watts

Humour is the most effective (and underrated) tool for dealing with negativity in the entire human arsenal. It’s a gift that is so often squandered or ignored. Part of this is because psychology professors and spiritual teachers either take themselves too seriously or their students take them too seriously. If you can perceive your life from a bird-eye view and see the humour in each and every situation, it’s very hard to stay negative about it. Situations that are tragic or comedic have many of the same elements in them. Choose wisely. Alan Watts is good at this, but he might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Jedd Mckenna also does this a bit, but again, he’s not for everything.

Tips and Resources:

  • Books by Alan Watts 
  • Book: Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing – Jed Mckenna

#2. Radical Compassion Practices 

Different forms of compassion-based practices have been used in almost all spiritual traditions throughout history. They obviously work. I like the work of Tara Brach, who uses the term radical compassion. What she means by that, as far as I understand, is all-inclusive, non-discriminatory compassion. This means it’s often not easy because we’re at times practising compassion, gratitude and forgiveness, with things that we have strong negative feelings towards. But that’s why it works. 

Tips and Resources:

#1. Memory Reconditioning

Much of our negativity is stored in based memories and what some might call traumas. It’s probably better to call them micro-traumas to distinguish from more serious traumas associated with PTSD etc. By consciously bringing to mind certain negative memories and their associations, and changing the emotional tone that is connected to them, we can undo a lot of the baggage that we picked up throughout our life. When taken to its extreme, I think this is even more effective than the compassion practices, but they go hand-in-hand. I like the work of Byron Katie and Lester Levenson. They both have free and paid content. 

P.S. The Sedona Method is associated with Levenson, but they charge an arm and a leg. I wouldn’t recommend any of their more expensive programs. 

Tips and Resources:

Conclusion

These six strategies need to be applied with consistency and intensity if you are to really change your brain’s habits. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t go the way you expect overnight. 

What experience have you had with the brain’s negativity bias? Let us know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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