What Comes Naturally, What Takes Practice
“Good” happens all the time, but humans are programmed to see the negative. Our ancient survival instinct tells us that if we don’t stay wary and alert to what could harm us, we die sooner. Though modern American life has softened the need for so much vigilance, negativity bias persists as part of our engrained neural patterns. In order to counteract our natural bias, we have to actively practice seeing the good. Then, to hold onto it, to embody the good, we also have to practice the pause.
Author and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson has a terrific short talk called “Take in the Good” where he summarizes this idea as: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, Teflon for positive ones.” Interactions with others that weren't great? Self-recriminations? Worries? Those thoughts spin ‘round and ‘round in our minds life taffy, whereas positive interactions with others, or experiences of beauty, connection, aliveness, and curiosity flow right through us like water.
Why Good Matters
Why would we want to counteract the negativity bias? For one, because we are pleasure-seekers. Even though we have a natural inclination to notice and perseverate on the negative, we have other instincts for seeking safety, belonging, and connection - but we have to work harder to foster these feelings and find balance. Secondly, whatever we feel affects others around us, even when (and perhaps especially if) we are unaware. So, when we embody the good, we spill good on others. The effect is cumulative across communities of people.
A Few Words About Practice
Before sharing the practice itself, I want to note that practice is a central theme of Only to Grow, because it is through practice that humans grow and become more capable of creating positive change in the world. Where we turn our attention and intention is where we are - and where we are headed. So, blog posts (and the forthcoming resource collection!) will regularly feature practices.
And just a spot of history: In 1949, Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist, coined the phrase “Neurons that fire together, wire together." His axiom reminds us that when we repeat an experience, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons. Every thought, sensation, and action activates thousands of neurons, and practice shapes our neural pathways. That’s how our practices become our habits. The notion of neuroplasticity – the ability of the human brain to be flexible, learn, and grow through practice – has been around for about 70 years, but it’s only become popularized within the last decade or so that humans are capable of shaping and re-shaping their brains throughout their adult lives.
The Practice: The 11-Second Pause
This is what Rick Hanson suggests, described in my own words:
- OBSERVE the good. Start by noticing what is good – perhaps kind words, strong collaboration, delicious sustenance for your body, something in nature that catches your eye, the completion of a task, celebratory news….
- SAVOR the good. It takes us 10-30 seconds to process a positive thought or a feeling and put it into long-term storage - and this is why positives generally slide off or through us; we have to pause to let them penetrate. This is the heart of the practice - giving yourself at least 11 seconds to take pleasure in the good.
- SENSE the experience. Feel the experience in your body, not just your mind. It’s less about the metacognitive act of labeling and more about letting it sink into you. Where in your body do you feel the good?
Ready to try it? An easy way to begin is with food, by pausing to take three breaths while appreciating the food in front of you before you begin eating. Three breaths take about 11 seconds, and food naturally lends itself to savoring and sensing.
When you’re ready to step it up, make an agreement to try the 11-second pause with a group – friends, family, or a team you work with. The group reinforcement will support everyone’s practice, and you'll notice cumulative effects.
I’ll be curious to hear what you discover, what you feel. To make conversation and interaction easier, I’ve published a Facebook page for Only to Grow, and I welome your contributions there!
See Rick Hanson's Collection of Simple Practices.