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10/12/2012 03:50 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

How To Be Optimistic and Focus on the Positive

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By Ellen Gibson

Thanks to evolution, the human brain is highly attuned to trouble. But you can start to retrain your focus on the positive, with some wisdom from the pros.

You sit down with your boss for your annual review. Despite mostly positive feedback, a single criticism lodges in your head and leaves you feeling lousy all week long. Sound familiar?

If so, you're not alone: It's our nature to fixate on bad news, a phenomenon known to psychologists as negativity bias. This built-in paranoia is a holdover from our hunter-gatherer days, when survival meant constantly looking out for danger. "The same neurohormonal chemistry that evolved to get us away from charging lions is locked and loaded today when we feel the least bit threatened," says Rick Hanson, PhD, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. "But while this stress reaction may have been helpful in the Serengeti, it's harmful now."

One reason: Negative encounters tend to leave stronger impressions than positive ones because they provoke more intense reactions. As a result, we develop a selective memory for failures, slights, and bad breaks -- which can cause us to feel helpless or victimized, or to shy away from taking chances.

Our selective memory can also lead us to make harsh judgments. Studies dating back to the 1960s have found that it's easier to form a bad opinion than a good one about an unfamiliar person (which helps explain why political attack ads are so effective). Fair or not, we're more likely to write off a new acquaintance for checking her phone mid-conversation than to give her points for silencing her ringer.

Fortunately for us (and the people we meet), we can take steps to prevent our minds from getting hijacked by pessimism. We asked three experts -- a life coach, a neuropsychologist, and an executive coach -- how to muffle our inner naysayer.

Fight Paranoia with Planning
"Anytime you make a big life change, it's vital to have a clear plan. This vision will be the anchor that prevents you from getting swept away by doubts. It's also important to continue to move forward when things go wrong -- which of course they will. For example, imagine you're feeling bruised by a remark about your progress. Rather than dwell on it, focus on what's in your control. Maybe you talk to the person about it, or ask yourself why you're feeling so sensitive. Remember that you are not powerless." -- Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, life coach and author of Outsmart Your Brain!

Stop and Smell the Coffee
"There's an expression in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. This means that new patterns of thought can actually change the physiology of our brains. So while we can't ignore bad news, we can train our brains to become more alert to good information. When you notice a positive detail in yourself or someone else, or in your environment, try savoring it for at least ten seconds. Most of these observations will be as simple as 'the sun is shining' or 'this coffee tastes good,' but do this a handful of times each day and you'll feel an emotional shift." -- Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist and coauthor of Buddha's Brain

Banish Fault-Finding
"For most people, the fear of being blamed looms larger than the hope of getting credit. This means that in an attempt to avoid risk, people often make the wrong choice -- or no choice at all. So at your workplace, and in any sort of group environment, do your part to help create an atmosphere in which people aren't scared to speak up or make bold moves. Rather than rehash past missteps, spotlight successes and steer conversations toward finding solutions." -- Ben Dattner, PhD, executive coach and author of The Blame Game

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