Breaking the Habit of Thinking Negatively

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University

I once attended a course by Fred Luskin called "Unwind: The Art and Science of Stress Management". While this class was primarily focused on reducing stress at work, it included a lot of happiness- and perspective-related lessons that I shared with my team afterwards. The other day I went through it again and realized how relevant some of these lessons are for my Positude-related work. While this post contains a multitude of different frameworks, principles and theories which I would rather like to discuss separately in length and detail, I feel it was a great talk to share with you. 


The neurochemical role of adrenaline on our daily lives

Frank works with some of the top companies (Google, BCG, Bank of America, etc.) on Stress Management and Happiness-related topics. We started by talking about the Google environment, an environment that is faster-paced than the normal rhythm that your life and body has. And even though there are "down-time" possibilities (social lunch environment, nap pods, massages, in-building gyms, etc.), it's an environment of high pressure and performance expectations. While we were talking about Google specifically, I have to say that this above-average high-stress work environment is the case for the majority of my friends - independent of where they work. 

In the course of his talk, Fred talked a lot about how - from a neurochemistry perspective - adrenaline affects our body, thinking and relationships. We all know the kick of adrenaline (rushing out of a building in case of fire, sky dying, etc.), but the reality is that the body does not only release adrenaline in such extreme environments, but also during the day (especially in such high-stress/performance environments). While our perception of adrenaline is generally positive, the matter of fact is that it also has a wearing-down effect on your mind and body. Effectively, there is a limit on how much adrenaline our body can absorb before it starts to hamper your happiness and ability to perform at a very high level. If you think of all the effects a high-stress environment can have on you - difficulties to stay focused, anxiety, etc. - this all shouldn't come as a big surprise. However, it was unknown to me the role that adrenaline plays in this. 

We then made two exercises separate from each other. First we started to talk about things that are stressful at Google. People talked about the ever-changing environment, the high expectations, fire drills, information overload, having to do more with less, etc. At that point, while we were sharing our thoughts in the big group, you could clearly feel how people were anxious and thoughtful. The group was quiet and facial expressions weren't necessarily joyful. Fred used this exercise to demonstrate to us that when you talk about things that are stressful, our body releases adrenaline, which in return creates anxiety and stress. This was all intensified negatively in a group setting where you fall into this collective downward spiral. 

A few minutes later we did the second exercise which was to talk about the good things at Google. People mentioned the pride they feel, the impact of the company, transparency of leadership, the care about our well-being, etc. During this second exercise, you could clearly sense how people were open, relieved and more relaxed when talking about these topics. This was a perfect demonstration that thinking and talking about good things in life, one can reduce this tense sense of anxiety and stress. Here again, in the group setting it felt that we were not only increasing our own well-being but also pushing each other collectively. 


How our brains are wired to think negatively

One of the things I learned during that talk that truly baffled me was that a normal person's thoughts are 75-80% negative during the day. Unfortunately, thinking negatively and complaining is the default option of our brains. According to Fred, we naturally operate on a "negative bias", our mental energy is being spent on things that are wrong. I felt challenged by this overly negative statement and thus went ahead and asked him why. His explanation was a true eye-opener for me. 

Fred explained that as humans, we are wired for safety and protection - something that we have been programmed on since the existence of humanity when we had to fight for survival. Our brains want to protect us from the bad, that's why we are wired to identify and think about negative things. While the historic example is that we had to fight saber-toothed tigers and survive in the wilderness, Fred went ahead and gave a very realistic example:  If you are in a room with 10 people and 9 of them hold something good in their hands while 1 person points a gun at you, you would focus on the gun and completely disregard the 9 positive things in the room. One might say "of course, the guy is holding a gun", but that's exactly the point. As humans, we are unconsciously programmed for survival. That's why our brain is wired to identify threats, danger and negative things in our environment and that's why thinking positively requires an extra effort. 

In order to break this habit, it's important to think more about the things you love, care about, appreciate - and most importantly - have! This will cause the opposite of stress. It's your choice what you pay attention to and it's something you can train and improve. The more you think of positive things, the less adrenaline will be released in your body and the more you will get parts of your brain and body working that are/were blocked by adrenaline (creativity, positivity, etc.).

To illustrate the importance - and the challenge - of thinking positively continuously, we did a third exercise in which we took two minutes (in groups of two) to talk positively about a person. Just positively. Objective was to give the mind practice to not complain for two minutes. It was a very interesting exercise to force yourself to think positively since you feel that you are usually wired to say something positive and negative at the same time ("He is good, but...").


Breaking the habit

Overall, by these exercises, Fred wanted to show us how important it is to think positively in life and to appreciate our "presence in the now".  Just by waking up in a bed, having a glass of water, taking a shower and having a proper breakfast - we already have more than 50% of the people in this world. Being appreciative starts with appreciating these very basic privileges. 

As simple as this might sound, the reality is that we still wake up every morning and go to work as if we had to fight demons. In the case of Google, we know we go to the best work place in the world, but we are troubled by things like shuttle that is delayed, the long commute to work, the stupid meeting in the morning, etc. The truth is that we should be happy as hell. According to Fred, perspective (the example of talking positively vs. negatively about Google), language (the practice of talking positively) as well as the way how we breathe (we did a meditation exercise as well) are the main factors that influence us and our happiness.

He concluded by saying that many people who are happy, are happy by choice. They deliberately make a decision to be happier. Example: Wake up and tell yourself it's gonna be a great day! Appreciate the people in your life, appreciate what you have, not what you don't have, etc. I know people always think of these things to be absolutely obvious and easy to understand but the challenge is to internalize these things and to behave and think according to these principles. That's the true challenge.