How to Train Your Brain to Stay Positive
As an entrepreneur, conquering challenge and failure is essential to the success of your business. You can learn to cultivate that resilience by training your brain to stay positive when times are tough.
"People tend to have a cognitive bias toward their failures, and toward negativity," says Matthew Della Porta, a positive psychologist and organizational consultant. Our brains are more likely to seek out negative information and store it more quickly to memory.
Of course, that bias is not always bad. Acknowledging problems and facing failures can lead us to better solutions. But too often, we go overboard, and beat ourselves up for our failures or let ourselves dwell in the negative.
Try these four tips to help you train your brain to stay positive:
1. Express gratitude. Negative events loom large unless you consciously balance them out. "When you're faced with challenges, it's important to take stock of what's going well," Della Porta says. Thinking about the good in your life can help balance that bias, giving your brain the extra time it needs to register and remember a positive event.
To help your brain store positive events, reflect on what you're grateful for and why at least once a week. Write down your blessings, such as the opportunity to pursue a career you love or a family that supports you. If you prefer a daily habit, then keep a nightly log of good things that happened that day. "Just keep it very short," Della Porta says. "If you try to hammer [gratitude] home, then it becomes mundane." Day One, a journaling app for Apple devices ($4.99), or OhLife, a free email-based journal, can to help you do this.
Related: 10 Ways to Say 'Thank You'
2. Repeat positive affirmations. As any politician or advertiser knows, the more often you hear a message, the more likely you are to believe it. The same goes for messages about who you are and what you are capable of doing. By repeating positive affirmations with conviction several times each morning, you are training your brain to believe them. "Over time, you'll start to internalize them," Della Porta says. Repeat your affirmations silently if you feel self-conscious.
Choose two to three affirmations that represent your values and goals, such as 'I can handle whatever comes my way,' 'There is plenty of time,' or 'I’m getting better every day.' The repetition will influence the way you interpret negative events, making you more resilient. "Especially if you're predisposed to negative thinking, this can be extremely effective," Della Porta says.
3. Challenge negative thoughts. Each time a negative thought arises, we choose how to respond. If left to our own devices, we tend to dwell. Our brains home in on negative events so they seem much bigger and more significant than they are. To combat that, start by imagining the thought as separate from yourself, as something you can observe and deconstruct. "Get in the habit of distancing yourself instead of dwelling," Della Porta says.
Next, challenge negative thoughts that are unfairly self-deprecating. For example, if your startup doesn't get the traction you hoped, you might think, "I'm a failure." That's untrue and unproductive. Instead, practice interpreting the same event differently. You might say, I worked really hard but I didn't account for a quirk of the market, so I'm disappointed, but now I’m going to try again with new information. That interpretation is gentler, truer, and more proactive. "At first, [this strategy will] be hard and you’ll think it doesn't work," Della Porta says. "But over time, it'll become automatic and negative thoughts will be less likely to come up. No one does this naturally; you have to learn and practice."