PART ONE: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BRAIN AND MIND
The brain is set up with what’s called a “negative bias”. This evolutionary tool developed in order to help us survive. The highly positive people believed there’d be enough food for winter, and died off; whereas the negatively biased people feared starvation, planted and foraged, and survived. Having a negative bias is not inherently a bad thing, as it’s the part of us that is constantly attuned to how we’re behaving in social situations, how others view us; it helps us prepare and plan ahead; and it helps keep us safe when we’re truly faced with danger.
Our minds and brains are different entities. Our brains are organs inside our heads, set up for receiving stimuli and housing various (but finite) kinds of neurotransmitters and offers rote functioning. The brain is rather mechanical. Our minds, on the other hand, are advanced, contemplative, creative interpreters, and it’s in our minds that we take in information and decide how to respond. Our brain may sense a quickly moving object as dangerous, so we clench and step back- and then our minds utilize the information gathered and recognize the hasty shape as our best friend and interpret their movement to mean they’re coming in for a hug. Then we can calm our brains down and embrace our best friend.
I mean, haven’t you ever done that, ever flinched, only afterwards to relax when you realize it’s a hug, not a saber-toothed tiger out to eat you?
But this negative bias brain exists and it’s not going away any time soon, and because it’s so automatic, and because it only has two settings (off and on), we are prone to looking for the bad. Have you ever met someone who is wealthy, with a nice family, who lives in a classy house in a nice part of town, and they’re always taking vacations- and they’re still unhappy? And they still find things to complain about?
This is not someone who is too far gone, but it is someone who hasn’t cultivated their positivity. We absolutely shouldn’t be happy and positive all the time- that’s unhealthy. But allowing our negative bias to run the show is also detrimental. When we practice positivity we exercise the not-so automatic, but just as useful, part of our cognition. Studies show that we learn best through positive experience, through positive feedback. “Good work!” goes farther than, “You missed a spot!” But the negative bias looks for the missed spots, so we have to consciously work at the positive side. Both can coexist, and must, if you’re to live a centered, grounded life.
Below is, by far, the best kind of criticism you can receive:
“You spent all day painting the house and it looks so colorful now, and so much better than it did before. You missed that spot up in the corner, but I can see how, because the sunlight doesn’t shine there. Would you mind going back up the ladder and getting that spot?”
Nope! Don’t mind at all.
Cultivating a positive mind is a major spiritual practice in many places in the world, but because the U.S. isn’t so spiritually-minded, we’re not good at cultivating the positive mind. We also think in extremes, like something is either positive or negative. good or bad. Well, remove judgments and consider what’s working and what’s not at the same time for any given situation.
When you compliment someone else you are reinforcing both their positive mind and your positive mind, and when you pay attention to your negative bias you are increasing your self-awareness. I, for one, am so thankful to know about the negative bias because I know that when I’m low on energy and willpower, and when all I can do is think about a situation as bad, or wrong, or that I messed up, that this doesn’t make me a terrible person and it isn’t a bad part of my personality at all- it’s just that my mechanical brain is often more automatic, and therefore more instinctual, than my positivity. My positivity has to be cultivated, watered, placed in sunlight, rotated, trimmed, and repotted every now and again. I like knowing that positivity doesn’t always come naturally, but that it can be cultivated and is worthwhile because the more I use it, the stronger it becomes.
Australians cultivate positivity with they’re saying, “No worries, mate!” Rastas cultivate their positivity when they say, “Stay up, irie vibes.” Costa Ricans cultivate positivity when they say, “Pura vida” (pure life!).
You can strengthen your positive mind in many ways, but here are a few quick exercises:
1. Notice when you’re being overly negative and just remind yourself that this is natural and your brain is just trying to keep you safe.
2. At the end of the day, no matter how bad your day was, write down three things that went well and why you think they went well.
3. When someone is doing something you don’t like or think is wrong, (like, maybe not done to your specifications or your standards), ask your mind to consider three things that the other person is doing well or that works for you. Offer both the reinforcing and the constructive criticism. Remember, this is good for you and the other person.
4. Take on positive sayings like, “No worries” or, “Pura vida”.
5. Know that even when you’ve strengthened your positive mind, your negative bias will also (and rightfully) be there. It’s okay to look for the negatives. Just look for the positives too.
PART TWO: NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE MINDS VERSUS OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM
I have a strong negative bias. If you ask me to try something new, I will quickly lean towards not trying it, and then I can convince myself that it’s a good idea. When planning a trip, I look at how BAD the weather will be, how EXPENSIVE the hotel will be, and how LONG before we get there.
However, I’m also a very optimistic person. I believe in the good in everyone, and I believe that things will, generally, work out for the best. I believe that, despite worrying about all that could go wrong, the trip will still be fun.
Optimism and the positive mind are related, but not the same. When the weather turns fowl, I don’t say, “Well, I should’ve known. Guess this trip is terrible.” A pessimistic person would. A pessimistic person can also cultivate a positive mind. These people tend to have cynical personalities. They live in a positive state of practice, all the while hyper-ware of the possible bad.
Cultivating positivity certainly can increase your optimism, but studies show that optimism and pessimism are mostly genetic. That’s right; some people are prone to smiles, others to frowns, but a pessimistic person- one who thinks things won’t go well, can also recognize when things are going right (a positive mindset). Likewise, an optimistic person can, when something goes wrong, fall to pieces (their strong negative bias).
Once again, this shows that, no matter your personality, or the inherent strength of your negative bias, you can cultivate your positive mind, and that this will certainly cause changes in your optimism, but it’s not exactly the same thing.