One of the more common resolutions expressed by callers to my radio program is the desire to “be more positive.”
Why is it that we can do 100 things right but obsess about the one thing that went wrong? Or why do we ignore the dozens of things the people around us do to be kind but then fuss about the one thing they miss? And did you ever notice that “positive thinking” never seems to offer the benefits people say it will?
You’re not alone. It turns out that — unless one important condition is met — human beings are actually neurologically predisposed for negative thinking.
In his book “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain” (W.W. Norton and Company, $9.99), Pepperdine psychologist Louis Cozolino describes research showing that the human brain is naturally wired to emphasize negative experiences more than the positive ones. Because negative experiences require us to engage our problem-solving skills, they necessitate more thinking and reflection. This leads us to naturally ruminate more about unpleasant experiences than happy events.
Cozolino notes, however, that there is one critical habit that actually offsets the brain’s tendency toward negative thinking: connecting with other people. Research shows that the degree to which we feel connected to others actually counteracts the brain’s natural tendency to go negative. When we feel alone, the brain uses negativity as a survival mechanism. If I am on my own, I have to be prepared to face every threat. I can’t relax. My very survival may depend upon cultivating a gloomy outlook.
But when I feel truly connected to the people around me, that sense of community helps to balance out the brain’s natural negativity bias. Human connection actually stimulates the brain in a manner that allows me to feel safe. Because I am not alone and I am confident that others are here to help look out for me, my brain gets let off the hook for attending to every negative detail. In fact, I can free up the energy necessary to be ... (brace yourself) positive, happy and even content. Attachment to others actually provides the nourishment our brains need to, as the old song goes, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
Connection, not a crowd
The thing is, it isn’t enough to just have people around you. If your family is little more than a collection of individuals sharing a house and a data plan, you will not be able to enjoy the benefits those relationships can give to your brain. In fact, you might be more likely to feel negative since you will be prone to see all the ways these people could take advantage of you, let you down or act in uncaring ways toward you. In order to balance out your brain’s natural tendency to emphasize negative input, you have to actually feel like a welcome, active participant in the communities in which you participate.
Resolve to connect
Pope St. John Paul II asserted that God’s design of the body teaches us important lessons about God’s plan for human happiness and fulfillment. This research is a powerful illustration of this idea because it shows that we were created to crave communion — to need others — in order to have the positive outlook that enables us to experience life as the gift it’s meant to be. Healthy relationships are not just a psychological nicety. They are a neurological necessity.
Granted, some days it is tempting to think that we’d be better off if we could get away from everyone and go live on a mountain somewhere, free to do our own thing and think our own thoughts. But, in fact, we literally are wired to need others to be healthy and fulfilled. The more connected and attached we are to the people who share our lives, the more likely it is we will feel whole, healthy and happy.
If you, like many people, are resolving to be a more positive person this year, start by working to be a more connected person. Prioritize time with your family over other commitments. Make one-on-one dates happen with your spouse and kids. Don’t end an outing with a friend before scheduling your next meet-up. Get the resources or professional help you need to resolve the relationship problems that stop you from actually feeling connected to the people who share your life.
If you invest the time and energy your brain needs to feel closer to the people you love, I feel positive that your efforts will pay a huge dividend in terms of a better outlook on life.
Dr. Greg Popcak, the host of More2Life Radio, is the author of many books, including, “Broken Gods: Hope, Healing and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart” (Image, $21). Learn more at: www.CatholicCounselors.com