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Be Happy Now


Positive psychology is changing the face of therapy — and literally changing brain structure

One of the reasons we're alive today is because our ancestors had great skill in recalling the negative over the positive.

That's right: It's not you're fault, and you're not alone. When your supervisor calls you into his or her office and your chest tightens or heart skips a beat, it's mostly because your ancestors etched into their brains which berry would kill them. When your child has a fever and your brain jumps to the worst scenario, it has to do with how your ancestors engraved into their brains markings of venomous snakes.

It's called the "negativity bias," and, these days, for worse, usually than better, it's embedded in our brains. It's how we've developed, and survived as a human species. The problem is, in modern society, focusing on "danger" usually doesn't save us from death (or even real danger). In fact, it can lead to death, as fearful stress reactions eventually take a toll on our bodies.

A couple decades ago, doctors didn't believe adults could produce new brain cells or neural connections. The best we could hope for to help a troubled mind involved therapeutic interventions, which — you guessed it — mainly revolved around rehashing negative past events.

"Historically, psychotherapy focused on getting down into the dirt," says licensed clinical social worker Stacey Horn, "and so many times for people it ended up re-traumatizing them."

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While reviewing past patterns can be quite helpful, neuroscientists are now proving that negative rumination actually changes the brain's structure to search for even more evidence that the world is a horrible, fearful, anxiety-provoking place. Fortunately, they're also showing us how savoring the positive can literally restructure our brains to balance, or even overcome, the negativity bias.

There's a classic saying in neural psychology: "Neurons that fire together wire together."

Metaphorically, it means: As you allow fearful, negative thoughts to swirl in your mind, it's as if you're widening an already well-traveled superhighway (thanks to our ancestral negativity bias). On the other hand, as you cultivate more positive, grateful, joyful thoughts, it's as if you're trampling a new path in a jungle, which will eventually turn into a dirt road, which will eventually be paved. By firing "positive" neurons, they form new, stronger connections, which ultimately determine, through chemical reactions, whether or not you'll feel calm or stressed in an otherwise neutral situation.

"You go where your thoughts lead you, and if you happen to be in a place where you see the negative, you're going to end up overwhelmed with anxiety," Horn says. "So much in our culture is focused on being 'this' enough — rich enough, beautiful enough, having smart enough kids. It opens the door for us to compare ourselves, and that's not useful."

It's actually harmful, as it steers us down the highway of negative bias.

Positive psychology promotes pondering good things. But it's not all Pollyanna and pretty affirmations; it's about taking time to truly feel gratitude or joy. It trains us not only to change the channel on the "horror movie" we've been playing in our minds, but also to actually restructure our brains toward the positive.

"Changing how we think, changing what we focus on, does change our brains," Horn says. "We've seen it again and again in the research."

This new type of psychology emphasizes being in the moment, developing more useful coping skills and appreciating what positive attributes both you, and the life you live, have. It's also about growth.

"A lot of positive psychology is oriented toward developing skills to overcome whatever deficit or challenges you have, and then move forward," Horn says. "We get more of what we focus on, so if we focus on the positive, we look for more positive."

The process literally retrains, and rewires, your brain.

"It helps us take a more accurate assessment of our life — that we aren't the worst mom, that we aren't the worst saleswoman … (it asks) 'what are the strengths, the things you do really well, such as sensitivity, generosity, responsibility, independence. How do you bring those to your relationships — the intimate ones, parenting, personal, professional and in the community?'

"Women are sometimes much better than men at being their own worst critics, and they need that other side to balance it."

Positive psychology fosters balance through gentle, therapeutic changes.

"It's a lot more about feminine energy and softness, and it's really powerful," Horn says. "It's more of a shift that happens than a dragging process that therapy can feel like."

The result: a much happier, well-rounded you — and one, if your ancestors understood today's research, would be so very proud of.

Quick ways to practice positive psychology

» STOP sign:Start paying attention to your thoughts, and when you find yourself thinking of worst-case scenarios or negative scenes, visualize a STOP sign, and replace the thought with a more positive one.

» "What if list":Fold a piece of paper in half. On one side, list every negative "what if" that pops into your head. On the other side, list the exact opposite:

What if I lose my job? ——– What if I find the job that makes me really happy?

What if I get really sick? —— What if I find better ways to take care of myself so I stay healthier for the rest of my life?

» Gratitude list:Write down five positive things that happened during the day, or five things you're grateful for. Even on the most difficult day, if you look, you'll find silver linings.

» Record it: Journal or make a short video about how things are going well, or better than they have in the past; short entries or videos are easy to review, and therefore, etch into your mind.

» Challenge it:When you have fearful or negative thoughts, ask yourself: 1) Who said it's true (is this an old voice)? 2) What is the evidence it's true today (does it stem from a past experience or voice that's no longer relevant)? 3) What happens if I decide not to believe this as a fact?

» Savor it:Once you notice something good happening (even a small compliment), take time to feel it as intensely in your body as you can. Stay with the thought and feeling for 10-30 seconds so "it really starts developing neural structure," best-selling author and psychologist Rick Hanson says in an interview for Berkeley's Greater Good website. "(Then) sense and intend that this positive experience is sinking into you and becoming a part of you. In other words, it's becoming woven into the fabric of your brain and yourself."

Main source: Stacey Horn, licensed social worker (Last bullet point from renowned psychologist Rick Hanson)

“Changing how we think, changing what we focus on, does change our brains." – Stacey Horn

»by Kimberly Nicoletti