The latest neuroscience suggests we can change our brains by transforming our minds and behavior. Specific mental exercises, when practiced systematically over time, can lead to enduring changes in the structure and function of our brains and, as a result, alter different facets of our Emotional Style.
Center Founder Richard Davidson shares nine ways to stop being negative, whether it's noticing the good in ourselves and others or noticing our environment and emotions.
1. Noticing the Good
Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one positive characteristic of someone you regularly interact with. Do this three times a day. Ideally, you'll write down a different trait each time, but if you're stuck on how "helpful" your office colleague is, that's okay.
2. Express Gratitude Regularly
Pay attention to times you say "thank you." When you do, look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and muster as much genuine gratitude as you can. Keep a journal and, at the end of each day, note the specific times you felt a genuine, even if brief, connection with another person during the act of expressing gratitude.
3. Compliment Other People Regularly
Keep an eye out for opportunities to do so, such as a job well done at work, a beautiful garden a neighbour created, or even a stranger's gorgeous coat. Look directly into the eyes of the person you are complimenting. In your journal, note the specific times you felt a genuine connection with someone you complimented.
4. Notice Your Breath
Mindfulness can weaken the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback, and can produce emotional balance. Mindfulness of breathing is an excellent place to start, since it is easy to focus on your breath during daily activities and it provides a clear anchor or support for mindfulness. The basic idea is to sit in a chair, relaxed but sitting up straight, and focus on your breathing: notice the sensations it triggers throughout your body, such as your abdomen moving in and out or the air passing the tip of your nose. If you notice that you have become distracted, simply return your focus to your breathing. Try this 5 to 10 minutes a day, ideally twice a day.
5. Cultivate Compassion
Practice simple compassion meditation, which can help you be less negative. It can provide perspective by reminding you that others suffer, too, and by focusing on relieving suffering in others you may well experience a sense of spontaneous joy. The basics of compassion meditation are to visualize someone who is suffering (a relative, friend, or a generic person such as a starving child) and, each time you inhale, imagine that you are taking in that person's suffering. Imagine the person's pain flowing from your airways into your lungs, and conjure an image of his or her anguish departing her body.
6. Bounce Back from Challenges
Try re-arranging your environment to speed recovery from adversity. Leave the situation where a setback occurred: if you had a fight with your spouse, leave the combat zone and walk outside, or at least into another room.
7. Work with Negative Emotions
To decrease negative emotions, try a variant of "exposure therapy," which consists of progressively more direct exposure to cues that produce negative emotions but in a safe context and when you are relaxing. (You can use breathing exercises from hatha yoga to help you relax.) Then make a list of specific cues and behaviors that make you upset or produce negative emotions in a specific context. Then in a safe context, such as your home when you are relaxing on a weekend, gently and gradually bring to mind images associated with the events that produce negative emotions. Conjure up these images as vividly as possible. While imagining these events, perform the breathing exercise to help you relax. Continue to practice the breathing exercise until you feel comfortable and at ease despite imagining these negative events. Spend about 15 minutes several times per week on this.
8. Practice Mindfulness of the Body
This form of mindfulness meditation strengthens your awareness of sensations and trains you to observe them nonjudgmentally. This component is important because when we judge our bodies as too tense we often add insult to injury and heap one negative emotion ("there must be something wrong with me if I can't relax!") on another. Mindfulness of the body can help break this negative chain of associations by training you to feel greater equanimity when observing your bodily signals of emotion and thereby reduce your negative emotions. To practice mindfulness of the body, sit upright and slowly move your attention systematically around your body, noticing the specific sensation in each such as tingling or pressure. Try this for 5 to 10 minutes, twice a day.
9. Our Common Tendency to Be Happy and Avoid Suffering
Notice that many of our actions and those of others are intended to relieve suffering or bring happiness. (When you encounter a painful stimulus, you withdraw from it.) Recognizing that this is basic to all human beings provides a deep sense of interconnection with those around you and cultivates an appreciation that we all wish to be happy and to relieve suffering. Try becoming aware of this any time you feel displeasure or pain. Notice your natural tendency to move toward happiness and well-being. And remind yourself that everyone is built the same way.