Virtually none of us, no matter what our personality type or upbringing, are naturally skilled at taking in positive experiences.
Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist. We’ve been sharing his work for many years. He talks about the brain’s negativity bias, and how we’ve evolved to be “Velcro” for negative experiences and “Teflon” for positive ones. Here’s the essential backstory. Our ancestors’ brains evolved to survive on the savanna, and biology changes very slowly. Our brains are likely very similar to those who lived 50,000 years ago or more. It was biologically adaptive to be worried and wary all the time. Let’s say that I looked over to my left and thought, “Hmmm., that could be a lion or that could be a rock.” If I concluded, “Oh, it’s all good, why worry, it’s probably a rock,” well now and then it was a lion, and I didn’t get to pass on my genetics. Happy-go-lucky meant happy-get-eaten! On the other hand, if I thought, “Oh no, oh no, it must be a lion, escape! Escape!” then even if I was wrong most of the time, I got to pass on my genetics. Hence the development of our negativity bias.
What does this mean in practical terms? When negative things happen they stick like Velcro. It doesn’t take any effort. Even worse, our brains secrete stress hormones which strengthen those memories being implanted. On the other hand, when positive things happen, they don’t stick. They actually slip off our brains like Teflon. They don’t get internalized. What happens when you and/or your team have worked really hard to get a positive result? You’ve put in the extra effort, collaborated, and actually succeeded at something? Even if someone acknowledges the quality of the work (which, as you know, is sadly missing from most organizational cultures), you don’t internalize the benefit from that. When we work with leaders, we sometimes use this metaphor: You’ve worked so hard, prepared a meal, it’s in front of you, but you actually never eat and then digest it. Even if you’re aware of the positives, they don’t go from short-term to long-term memory or, as Hanson writes, they don’t go from activation to installation.
Why is it so important to learn to take in the good? It builds resilience against the inevitable things that go wrong in life. It’s like putting money in the bank and then having a positive balance, so we’re better prepared for life’s withdrawals. Resilience allows us to be less “thrown” when life presents something negative. It reduces our stress levels and increases our overall life satisfaction.
How do we consciously take in the good? What can help this process?
- It takes 12-15 seconds of focused attention. Think of two long, slow, deep breaths. That’s not a long time, but it really matters. The longer the better.
- If it’s something that happened in the past, recall the memory vividly. Perhaps it’s a memory of someone acknowledging the contribution you made. Remember it as if it’s happening, right now.
- Use as many of your senses as possible. What did you see? Hear? Feel?
- Breathe the positive into your body. Imagine parts of your body are thirsty, and you’re taking in the purest and most sparkling of waters. Or be aware of any internal beliefs such as not being good enough, or smart enough, or competent enough, and allow what you’re taking in to counteract those beliefs. Allow what you’re taking in to soothe and heal.
- Take in what was important about what you did. Who and what was impacted? What contribution was made? For example, if you had a positive interaction with a direct report, visualize how that person felt, and those who would then be impacted in a positive way by that person’s enhanced mood or engagement. Think of the likely cascading positive ripples from what you did. Consciously breathe that in.
If you practice taking in the good, then you can assist others in doing the same. You can tell them what you’re learning. Then, if you give some acknowledgment and they brush it off, you can invite them to just take two or three deep breaths and internalize what you’ve said. And then, afterward, you can also internalize the positive impact you had on that person! It becomes contagious.
Very few teams do active reflections on work they’ve done (after action reviews). Even when they do, they may acknowledge what went well and lessons learned, but they almost never take time to really take in what they did, collectively and individually, that was really positive. Doing so can have a huge impact on team or organizational culture.
When we consciously take in the positives we build resilience, internal resources that help us cope with the inevitable setbacks of life. This is one of the important reasons for having an active practice of daily reflection. When you set an intention at the beginning of the day, and then reflect on what actually happened at the end of the day, it provides an opportunity to take-in-the-good. This is an article on Rick Hanson’s book on resilience.