Some people (CYNICS!) would argue that humans are naturally negative — that emotions like hostility, jealousy and despair are the essence of the human experience. And they’d point to history as evidence (we haven’t exactly spent the last 200,000 years in the throes of collective euphoria).
But feeling bad feels bad. And feeling good feels good. That can’t be an evolutionary accident.
Stress kills. So says science. It causes the deterioration of all our biological goodies, from brain to gums to heart. It elevates cortisol, adrenaline and glucose levels, leads to inflammation, gastrointestinal problems and blood vessel malfunction. It makes us more susceptible to illness and can even accelerate the growth of cancer. Not to mention the horrendous effects on our long-term mental health. It’s bad news.
So doesn’t it make sense that positive emotions would achieve the opposite effect? Welp, they do. Feel-good feelings affect our brains and bodies in all kinds of lovely ways, including increasing our awareness, attention, and memory, boosting our immune system and reducing risk for all kinds of illnesses. Optimists live longer, happier lives. This, we know.
Seems pretty obvious that Mother Nature intended for us to feel good. The fact that positive feels are so advantageous for our bodies and minds seems to me an infallible argument that happiness is (supposed to be) our natural state of being.
According to Psychology Today, “Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brain’s ability to function, even creating depression. On the flip side, thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. This helps your brain function at peak capacity.”
But we can’t ignore the glaring fact that bad thoughts and feelings persist. Quite strenuously. Why? If good feelings are so, well, good, why do so many of us feel so bad so much of the time?
The H word: habit. Our brains are built to be habitual, and they become (essentially) addicted to negative thought patterns.
The basic biology is this: our brain’s neurons are specialized cells that conduct electrical impulses. Neurons talk to each other via neurotransmitters, and when faced with the same stimuli over and over again, groups of neurons become BFFs, forming neuronal pathways. They then activate together as a circuit and over time, increase their power, efficiency and connection. Hence, the strength and durability of bad habits and negative thoughts.
The best news ever is, our brains are under our control thanks to a little thing called neuroplasticity. We can break the cycle of pessimism, bad feelings and negativity. It just takes work. Admittedly, a lot of work.
If the idea of retraining your brain feels overwhelming, just start small. Milk your good thoughts and feelings. When a positive emotion bubbles up from your inner being, fuel that fire. Keep it going as long as you can. Do whatever it takes to stay happy — even if it means looking at puppy pics for six hours. Because feeling good is ALWAYS a good idea, and your brain will totally take the hint.