Train Your Anxious Brain to Experience Joy, Part One

“Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all” Robert Louis Stevenson.

I was in the delivery room thirty-four years ago with my sister Lisa when my niece, Rachael, was born. I held her only a few minutes after she’d taken her first breath. Looking at her face, seeing how tiny she looked,  I was transfixed with an experience I can only describe as joy because it went deeper into my heart than happiness. I’ve even saved the light blue paper hospital gown I wore when I was there. I can’t bring myself to throw it away. Every time I see it, my mind returns to that room and my newborn niece.  Once again, my heart warms with joy. 

As it turns out, joy is an experience more complex than a feeling or emotion. In an interview with Psychology Today, posted on July 28, 2020, Dr. Pamela King talked about the meaning and depth of joy. She said she’s observed that many people have an enduring and underlying sense of something more profound than the emotion of happiness. She describes this sense as joy, remarking that joy can be cultivated, practiced, or made a habit.

According to Dr. King, three areas deeply inform joy. 

  • Becoming increasingly authentic, allowing our strengths to guide us.
  • Growing in the depth of our relationships, including contributing to others,  
  • Living more coherent with our inner values.

As you read this, can you recall a time you experienced joy? Take a moment to reflect. Where were you? What happened? If you can see it, write it down. You’ll want to come back to this later. It’s not unusual if you don’t see any time in the past when you experienced joy. If you’re like most of us, your brain is more accustomed to looking for proof that something isn’t working the way it should.  That’s called the Negativity Bias. We look at that next.

The Anxious Brain

What if you discovered that it’s normal for our brain to be anxious?  

We all tend to give more importance to negative experiences than positive or neutral experiences. This reaction is called the Negativity Bias. We focus on the negative even when the negative experiences are insignificant or inconsequential.

Under Negativity Bias, we are inclined to internalize negative experiences more deeply, causing us to worry and dwell on small things. For example, we may later obsess over a comment we made at a party, even though the rest went well. We may enjoy a movie and later stress over someone having cut in front of us in the ticket line.

This Negativity Bias comes into play when we look at current events worldwide. People suffer in many places around the globe, and we’ve become more aware of their plight as time passes. More locally, we don’t have to look far to hear or read about the difficulties we all currently face at home. 

Training your brain toward joy may help cultivate resilience amid this turmoil and uncertainty. To do this, you must learn how to work with the brain. Training the brain involves several steps. First, we look at why we have a  Negativity Bias. 

Step One: Realize what the Negativity Bias represents.

Scientists have discovered that our brain hasn’t changed much in about 100,000 years. You already know this if you’ve read some of my past articles. 

Just think of it: we have the same brain as our ancestors. It’s possible that the introduction of blue eyes around 7-9,000 years ago was the most significant change. Aside from that, there’s very little difference between your brain now and those of people living long ago. It’s weird to think about this because we pride ourselves on having a “better brain” than our forebears. 

Thousands of years ago, we were living in caves. We didn’t have fangs or fur and couldn’t run very fast. We were pretty weak as animals go. However, we did have something that helped us stay alive: a brain that could anticipate danger and protect us from something that could happen if we didn’t watch out.

Enter the Negativity Bias. To see how this works, pretend you live in a cave with me and about forty more people. It’s 50,000 years ago. We’re all hungry and want to go outside to get lunch. Now, visualize us all walking slowly toward the cave’s entrance, getting ready to search for food. What’s the first thing you want to look for just as you leave the cave? I’ll bet you answered “predators” or “danger” or something along those lines.

It’s possible that people who didn’t check for danger first got eaten before they could procreate. At any rate, you and I have inherited the anxious brain! Some research is beginning to show that the wiring for this bias is in infants. It primarily involves the amygdalae, the almond-shaped brain part concerned with fight, flight, or freeze.

Step Two: See how hard the brain works to “protect” us!

If our brain hasn’t changed in about 100,000 years, we can see that the Negativity Bias may have saved us from making costly mistakes! Looking at what could go wrong in any new situation allows us to develop skills that help us anticipate the possibility of dire consequences.

When you see this, you might develop an appreciation for how hard the brain works. After all, it may still “believe” that we’re living thousands of years ago and need its protection, hence the Negativity Bias! Your brain is partnering with you to keep you alive, although you may not need it to activate the Negativity Bias for every instance, say, that obsession about what you said at that party!

In Part Two of Training Your Brain to Experience Joy, we will look at other realizations that fall from seeing how hard your brain works at keeping you alive. 

It’s about developing compassion for this organ!

Until then, be well!

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