Anyone remember this classic, sung by Bing Crosby and possibly your mother when you were having a tough day at school?
“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”
Well, the beginning lyrics went like this and I found myself singing it today as I was thinking about what to write for this blog. So, I’m going to share the first few lines with you, if you remember it too; then go ahead and have a sing……..
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum”
It turns out, and no surprise really, that there’s a lot of truth and science behind these little lyrics. The more we focus on the positive, the less room there is in our brain for the negative. And when we say, “focus”, this means active conscious directed attention on positivity. This is where mindfulness comes in. Becoming more aware intently on all of the good things that happen in your day, however small they may seem, is a positive action. For example, notice something little you achieved today and focus on that accomplishment, the time and effort that went into it, the thought process behind it, the doing of it and the satisfaction you felt after it was finished. Really allow yourself the opportunity to break down all the steps involved, the resources you had in order to do this, the knowledge and the resilience you brought to it in order to fulfill it. Throughout this process, keep focused on the positive aspects of this task and if any slight negativity creeps in, focus on 2 more positives to cancel out the negative.
What “Positive Neuroscience”, is telling us now through brain research is that when we make a daily practice of positive focus both in our waking cognitive state and also in our mindfulness and meditative states, we are growing the positive neurological activity in the, Amygdala region of the brain. This is the area, which was originally thought to primarily produce the, “fight or flight” response, and all of the emotions associated, like fear, anxiety, depression etc. But with functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fmri), Dr. William Cunningham at the University of Toronto and Dr. Alexander Todorov at Princeton University have discovered that when people are, subjectively “experiencing” positivity through the intentional focus on positive imagery, that this area of the brain is activated. And because this Amygdala area is also responsible for our feelings of compassion toward one another, there is a further increased benefit to us on an even more primitive level.
The most exciting part of this research is that as we continually accumulate positivity, which promotes happiness and contentment, we also reduce stress levels and the production of cell destroying cortisol wflvsve. We will still have the instincts of, “fight or flight” when necessary, as the Amygdala activates appropriately. But with increased positive thinking, mindfulness and meditation there is also an increase of empathy in this area of the brain. Compassion and empathy are a primitive Amygdalae instinct; we just need to allow it to be nurtured and to act upon it positively and happily.
Dr. Donald Hebb, the Canadian scientist has notably said, “Neurons that Fire together, wire together.” And with that knowledge, Dr. Rick Hanson, the Happiness psychologist from the USA, explains that we can increasingly fire up our neural circuitry to cultivate positive states of mind. Focusing as well on the Left Pre-Frontal Cortex of our brain where positive emotions and greater well-being lie, the more we, “put the brakes on negativity”, the more positive neurological cell growth that occurs in the areas of the brain that keep us happy, content and feeling balanced in our lives.
Focusing and practicing, “Gratitude” for example, gives us more reward-related neurotransmitters producing dopamine. The research shows that this brain-producing chemical actually brightens the mind compounded with an increase in norepinephrine production. It does require consistent practice, however. As we know from the latest studies conducted by Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard Medical School; it only takes 27 minutes per day of alpha wave brain activation through mindfulness or meditation, for 8 weeks to make positive changes to your brain. And to keep growing more and more brain cells, we need to continue to practice. Just as physical exercise builds muscles and strength, meditation grows brain cells and grey mass.
Gaining control over our attention is critical to our positive neural development as we build new and stronger synaptic connections. Meditating on the positivity in our lives and what we are thankful for with clarity, skillfulness and intention creates a, happy hippocampus; the area of the brain associated with visual-spatial memory, context and setting. You can’t get stressed when this region of your mind is meditating and the consistent practice of meditation decreases the bad stressors.
Let’s explore the opportunity of taking some practical steps toward the attainment of positivity and happiness Look At This. Dr. Hanson suggests that letting a good fact become a good experience is the first. For example, a flower budding and blooming is a good fact. Let yourself dwell on this fact until you feel involved in the experience of the flower by contemplating it on all levels and with all of your senses; try this exercise for up to 27 minutes. Savor the experience and make it intense, expand it in your mind and develop a positive story around it. As you engage with the experience of the blooming flower, sink into it even deeper. Perceive it through light and color; allow it to soothe you from the inside out like a balm of comfort. Imagine the blooming flower like a jewel going into the treasure chest of your heart. And become completely focused and absorbed into the blooming flower like a resource you can take with you wherever you go from this time forward.
Dr. Hanson also talks about, “self-directed neuroplasticity”; we already know the brain is malleable, so why not mold it in a positive direction to induce our own self-fulfillment and contentment? It’s really a, “no-brainer” isn’t it? And it makes so much sense as we involve all of our 5 senses in the process through that delightful state of bliss we attain during meditation. Of course, I am partial to Guided Meditation because you do not have to practice completely on your own, you are being facilitated into that “Alpha” brain wave zone and you are also getting the benefits of, “connection” with another person, or others if you are practicing in a group.