Re-Wiring Your Brain for Happiness: The Science of Positive Thinking

Find out what you can do to make the positive things in your life count more, and why negative thoughts and experiences tend to get stuck in your head more than the positive ones. You'll also get two exercises to help you shift your brain's focus from the negative to the positive things in your life.

November 2023
min read
02-How to improve your mood instantly
Skrevet af
Written by
Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psykolog, specialiseret i pædagogisk psykologi og formidling.

Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psychologist, specialized in educational psychology and communication.

Your brain is designed to find the negative

Did you know that your brain is naturally built to look for negative information and hold on to it? Let's look at an example that you probably know yourself:

You've invited friends and family over for dinner. You get lots of praise for the event. The guests praise your food, and they love the entertainment. Most of them, anyway. Amid all the praise, one guest gets to mention that the potato salad was a tad bland.

 Even though all but one person praised the party, that one negative comment is stuck in your head.

The reason it's the one negative comment you remember - and not all the compliments - is that <hl>your brain is built to look for negative information<hl>.

Your brain is built to look for negative things because it was necessary for our survival back when we lived on the EastAfrican savannah, says professor of positive psychology Hans-Henrik Knoop:

"The reason we're wired with this pervasive negativity tendency is that we evolved through 200,000 generations of Stone Age history. There have been humans on earth for 2-3 million years. And there we lived 99% of the time in the Stone Age, in a hunter-gatherer way of life, where you were on guard all the time, and there were threatening circumstances all the time. That has given us a focus on negativity in the sense that we have tended to be on a lighter alert all the time."

Hans-Henrik Knoop explains that <hl>today we often find it difficult to take advantage of the fact that our lives are no longer in danger<hl>. We live in a welfare society where we have an incredible number of opportunities. We are very privileged compared to our ancestors in the Stone Age and compared to our grandparents.

"It's insanely privileged, but we don't notice it because all these positive circumstances, all the good things in life are something we turn to, while what hurts keeps intruding," says Hans-Henrik Knoop.

The reason you remember the bad and forget the good

Your brain is naturally built to remember the bad or unpleasant because it helped your ancestors survive.  

When we humans lived in the East African savannah and ate a poisonous berry, for example, we needed to remember what the berry looked like, so we didn't eat it again. By making us focus on what feels unpleasant, this mechanism in our brains has ensured our survival.

And <hl>although our environment looks very different today, our brains are still similar to those of our ancestors<hl>, which is why we often automatically focus on the negative and the unpleasant.

"If someone says you're a great colleague, two minutes later you've forgotten it. If someone says you're a terrible colleague and you should be fired, you'll never forget it. Even if you pass 27 exams and you fail just one, that will be the one that gets the most attention for the rest of your life, presumably," says Hans-Henrik Knoop.

Happiness is like a muscle you can train

Although your brain is built to remember the negative, you can train it to focus on what makes you happy - what triggers the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your body.

Just as you can train your muscles by lifting weights, you can also train your brain to remember the good things in your life.

 But it's NOT enough to just sit back and wait.

 Just as you need to train your muscles to get stronger, it also takes training to get a bigger joy muscle.

 In other words, <hl>you need to actively do something to remind yourself of the positive things in your life<hl>. Otherwise, your brain will just revert to what it's designed to do: protect you by focusing on the negative and unpleasant.  

Then what do you need to do to experience more happiness? Find out by trying the exercises below. I've selected two of the best exercises from positive psychology, about what makes us happy.


Gratitude Journal

When you remember the things, you're grateful for, your brain releases pleasure hormones.

You can use the Gratitude Journal to help you remember the things you're grateful for. It's essentially <hl>a tool to help you remember the good things in your life<hl>.

Scientific studies show that people who keep a gratitude journal experience a higher quality of life, experience more positive emotions and are generally more satisfied with their lives than people who don't use the gratitude journal.  

You should therefore use the gratitude journal if you are interested in experiencing more happiness if you are interested in becoming more aware of what things and which people are important in your life. If you're just interested in having more energy and energy in your everyday life.

How to do it

All you need to do to get started with your gratitude journal is to find something to write on. It could be a notepad you keep at your bedside table, or it could be on your mobile or computer.

Once you've found where you want to write, it's simply a matter of writing down the things you're grateful for.

  • If you're grateful because you've been recognized for a piece of work, write it in your diary.
  •  If you're grateful because your partner picked up the kids when you had to work late, write that down.
  •  If you are grateful that your colleague helped you with that IT problem that bothered you for hours, remember to write it down in your gratitude journal.

It doesn't matter when you write down what you're grateful for. What matters is that you do it.

For many, setting aside 10 minutes at night before bed works well. Here, a good rule of thumb can be to try to find three things that happened during the day for which you are grateful.

Writing in your gratitude journal before you go to bed will give you a good feeling going to bed because you'll remind yourself of the things in your life that are worth appreciating.

<hl>The gratitude journal is therefore a tool to make you aware of the things in your life that you appreciate<hl>. It is also a tool to help you identify what you need to do more of in the future to maintain or increase your quality of life.


Positive Rules of Life

"If I make a mistake, it's a disaster".

"I don't feel it's okay to say no".

"If someone criticizes my work, I feel they are criticizing me as a person".

If you recognize yourself in any of these phrases, then first of all know that you are not alone. These kinds of phrases are called rules of life.

We all have them, and many of our rules are good for us because <hl>they help us live without having to think about everything we do<hl>.

For example, a good rule of life is "I look before I cross the road" or "I wash my hands after I go to the toilet".

But rules can also be inappropriate for you when they make demands on you that are so great that they are impossible to achieve.

 For example, is a rule like "I shouldn't make mistakes".

As human beings, we all make mistakes. It is therefore an impossible task to live up to a flawless ideal. When we cannot live up to our rules, we have negative thoughts, such as "if I make a mistake at work, it means I can't do my job at all".

This kind of negative thinking reinforces the rule of life unless you become aware of your rules of life and start working on them. In fact, most of us are not aware that we are living by rules that are not good for us. They have become automated without us noticing.

Therefore, to work on your living rules, you first need to find out which rules you are living by.

3 types of rules

There are generally three types of life rules:

  1. Those about <hl>perfectionism<hl> such as:
    a. "I shouldn't make mistakes"
    b. "Although I try hard, I often feel that I'm not doing well enough"
  2. a. “
  3. These are the rules of life that are about <hl>the acceptance of others<hl>. These are rules like:
    a. "I can't stand it when people don't like me"
    b. "Although I try hard, I often feel that I am not doing well enough"
  4. Life rules that deal with <hl>the need for control<hl>:
    a. "I should be able to do it myself"
    b." Asking for help means I am weak"

Consider whether your negative life rules are about perfectionism and acceptance or whether they are about control.

Once you have identified whether you have any living rules that are not good for you, it is a good idea to consider what alternative rules you could replace them with.

Here are some suggestions on how to make your rules of life more positive:

Our rules of life are often so automated that we don't even realize we have them.

 Therefore, try to accept that it takes time to change them into more positive alternatives. This requires you to actively remind yourself that you can think differently.

 To practice your positive life rules, use the suggestions in the chart above. <hl>The next time you become aware that you are following an unhelpful rule, stop and think about how you can replace it with a more positive formulation<hl>.

 And remember: just because your current rules are hard to get rid of doesn't mean they'll be there forever. It takes time to turn them around, but you've already taken your first steps by reading this article.

  • Knoop, H. H., 2013: Positiv psykologi. Forlag: Trefold
  • Allen, S., 2018: The Science of Gratitude. A white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundationby the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley

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