Reality Check: Velcro or Teflon?

According to psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, knowledge from neuroscience, positive psychology, and contemplative practices can be connected to help people develop greater contentment, resilience to stress, and peace of mind.

In “Just One Thing,” (Hanson’s newsletter) he offers practical suggestions based on that knowledge. He made this memorable observation about how our minds work in a recent issue:

“In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

Is that true for you? Think about a day—any day—when you’ve had both negative and positive experiences. Do the negative experiences cling like Velcro, whereas the positive ones slide off with barely a trace left behind?

Most days contain positive events that we barely notice. Those days, everyone gets off to school or work without panic. The pets eat without incident (and poop only in appropriate places.) We drive without accident and walk without injury. The sun shines or the rain falls, as needed. The neighbours smile, the radio plays our favourites, and life is largely peaceful. These “events” are not always noticed, but they are many and positive.

Now, toss in one negative event. Whoops! Left my phone in my other purse! Now what do I focus on? How do I feel? What’s my inner dialogue? For many of us, the missing phone—whether we need it or not—overshadows all those positives and takes over.

Is that response inevitable? You know that I’ll suggest that we have a choice in how we respond. Some people may choose to let it go; others may choose to berate themselves for days, even enhancing the experience by telling everyone how stupid, forgetful, and stressed they are.

Even when you want to choose a more helpful response to a negative event, you know it’s not always easy to do so. So what can you do?

A good start is simply to be aware of this built-in human tendency to dismiss the good and dwell on the bad. Hanson suggests that we can develop a brain that is more resilient and able to handle negative experiences through choosing deliberate practices to counteract this tendency.

One of his suggestions is to look for good facts and turn them into good experiences. Notice the good—wildflowers, birds, your favorite breakfast food, a smile from a stranger. Notice the good within yourself, too—perhaps you are kind, friendly, persistent, responsible.

Now take a few seconds to absorb and really experience that goodness, instead of letting it slide off the Teflon and disappear.

Any time is a good time to begin this habit. Do it regularly, throughout the day and at the end of the day. Take a few minutes and review your day with the awareness that it’s helpful to balance the often–ignored positives with the inevitable negatives.

Are you concerned that it’s selfish to focus on your own happiness?

Consider this. When you choose to concentrate on everything that’s negative, are you able to be helpful, supportive, and encouraging to others who are suffering? Or are you more likely to be pleasant, kind, and patient with others (and yourself) when you recognize the positives in your own life?

Do you think that working on building contentment within yourself can help you become more helpful to others?

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