The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.
And that’s just not fair since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral.– Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
What Went Wrong
Last night when I was doing a somatic listening cuddle session with my partner, the main feeling that came up for me was sadness.
I had invited a friend to meet at a safe physical distance in a local park. She replied with a long, tortured, self-contradictory email about why she didn’t feel safe doing it, even though we’d met in the same park a few weeks ago.
It wasn’t her “no” that made me sad, it was feeling cut off from the opportunity to comfort her about what was making her feel unsafe. I started ruminating about other things I felt cut off from:
• Writing a post about the negative mental health effects of news consumption.
• Keeping up with my reading schedule on Tiny Habits.
• Getting my second meditation session in yesterday.
• Posting to Instagram.
• Creating a successful Patreon page.
• Learning only one new thing from the first few weeks of Yale’s The Science of Well-Being course.
When seen through the lens of a single rejected invitation, I was processing my day as a failure.
What Went Right
On the other hand…
• I fell behind on my news consumption post because I was writing about my meditation group’s experience with Rick Hanson’s H.E.A.L. exercise.
• I set up a Zoom meeting to talk with a life coach about her business model.
• I called my father’s second wife for a catch-up chat. Hadn’t spoken with her in (this is embarrassing) three years.
• I got an email from a neighbor I knew when we were teenagers.
• I got 10,143 steps in by visiting two lovely parks.
• I got to hang out in a virtual game night with the same friend who had declined my park invitation.
Oh, and now I get a chance to apply the one new thing I learned from The Science of Well-Being.
The GI Joe Rule
Laurie Santos, who created the course, talked about a lie foisted upon children of the 1980s by the GI Joe cartoon show. At the end of each episode, GI Joe would share a public service announcement with an animated child. The child would thank him, and he would say, “Knowing is half the battle.”
As I demonstrated above, knowing about the brain’s negativity bias doesn’t stop me from getting caught up in it.
If Rick Hanson had a cartoon show in the ’80s, he might have concluded his PSAs with “Habituating positive neuroplasticity is half the battle.” That might have been a little too nerdy. Even for PBS.
Here’s how Hanson’s framework helps us H.E.A.L.
Ten Minute (or Ten Second) Exercise
H.E.A.L. is an acronym for:
Have (or call to mind) an experience of safety, satisfaction, or connection.
Enrich the experience.
Absorb the experience.
Link the experience to a minor worry.
1. Have the experience.
Looking at yesterday, I could choose to notice something that happened (like receiving the email from my old neighbor) or something that I initiated (a phone call to my dad’s second wife). Either one contributes to the positive mental and emotional state of feeling connected. The key is to practice noticing when I’m having positive experiences.
2. Enrich the experience by taking it in for at least ten seconds. The corny phrase stop and smell the roses comes to mind. (If you’re looking to savor a moment of ironic satisfaction, you might want to watch this cheesy Mac Davis video.) Notice what’s new and fresh about the moment. What makes it unique? Where in your body are you noticing the pleasant sensations?
3. Absorb the memory of this experience with the kind of intention that precedes taking a photograph. Practice nurturing that feeling for moments of safety (my friend wasn’t going to catch a virus over Zoom), satisfaction (way to go getting my steps in), and connection (phone call, email, game night).
4. Link the experience to a minor worry. I can heal the wound of the rejected park invitation by balancing it with the catch-up phone call, the neighbor’s email, or any of the other things that went right.
The other half of the battle is always going to be the things that don’t go our way, but practicing learning to H.E.A.L. can add to our sense of psychological safety.
And, although I haven’t read it yet, I’ll bet Rick Hanson’s new book NeuroDharma will offer many more tools as well. Stay tuned.
Check out Rick Hanson’s take on H.E.A.L. from Sounds True’s Loving, Knowing, Growing.