Wisdom//

How to Train Your Mind to Focus on the Positive

According to social psychology, positive reframing starts with the small decisions we make throughout the day.

When something goes wrong at work, it’s normal to take that negative experience and hold onto it for the rest of the day —  or maybe even for the whole week. That tendency is a product of how our brains are wired, notes social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California, Davis. “Our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt toward the negative,” she says in her recent TED Talk. “There’s a lot of research that shows we literally have to work harder to see the upside of things.”

Ledgerwood’s research team focuses on finding psychological tools that allow people to change that, and reframe their experiences. They have found that when it comes to optimistic thinking, the tools to turn our negative situations into positive ones are in our own hands. “Our minds may be built to look for negative information and to hold onto it, but we can also retrain our minds if we put some effort into it — and start to see that the glass may be a little more full than we initially thought,” Ledgerwood says. 

Here are a few ways you can train your mind to reframe your failures, let go of negativity, and focus on the good:

Practice “gain framing”

The “framing effect” is a psychological concept that’s all about howyou frame your stories to others, and Ledgerwood explains that how you recall your own experiences can alter the way you see them. “There’s a lot of research in the social sciences showing that depending on how you describe a glass to people, it changes how they feel about it,” she says. “If you describe the glass as half-full, this is called a ‘gain frame,’ because you’re focusing on what’s gained. But if you describe the same glass as half-empty, it’s a loss frame.” Ledgerwood notes that when we use gain framing to describe our experiences to others, we start to see the given situation in a positive light. “It’s about learning to rehearse good news and share it with others.”

Acknowledge one good thing

Reframing a negative experience isn’t always easy. Ledgerwood notes that when you’re upset, it can help to focus on a different experience entirely — one that you feel good about. While it’s easy to assume that venting will help get rid of your negative emotions, dwelling instead on one good thing that happened that day can prompt your brain to switch directions — which is ultimately more helpful. For optimal practice, Ledgerwood suggests taking pen to paper — even if it feels difficult in the moment. “You have to work to see the upside,” she says. “There’s research out of UC Davis that just writing for a few minutes each day about things you’re grateful for can dramatically boost your happiness and well-being.”

Respond counterintuitively

Ledgerwood also says that how we react inthe moment can make a significant difference, too. “What if the next time somebody snapped at you, you forgave them?” she asks. “Or what if the next time you had a really grumpy waitress, you left her an extra large tip?” Ledgerwood says that by responding counterintuitively, offering ourselves time to reframe, we can stop our brains from the cycle of dwelling on the negative, and spreading it. “One mean comment can stick with somebody all day… and that tends to propagate itself,” she says. How we respond can determine how our minds see the experience in retrospect.
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