Being Open To The Good Things In Life

Previously on the blog we have covered how mindfulness can help us accept and deal with negative feelings. However, mindfulness can also help us notice and become more open to the good things in life.

It’s an unfortunate fact that our brains are geared towards seeing the negative. Our ancestors had to be cautious of the many dangers around them, or else they wouldn’t have survived long. Even though 21st century life doesn’t often contain the danger of being eaten by a bear, our brains are still wired to be alert to risks. Despite this negativity bias, however, we can take steps that will allow the brain to start taking in more of the good.

Staying with Good Experiences

We naturally tend to dwell on the bad stuff that happens, even when many good things have also happened. For example, say that you had a stressful day at work, but then you go out with your friends in the evening. When your head hits the pillow that night, you may find yourself ruminating over the problems at work, rather than on the fun you had with your friends.

This is why it’s important to use mindfulness to ‘stay’ with good experiences. Staying with the good means to consciously stay present with positive feelings and experiences, rather than dismissing them or racing on to the next experience.

While the brain is acutely perceptive of the negative, positive things flow right through like water. It wasn’t much use to cavemen to notice how beautiful the sunset was, but it was important for them to be aware of rustling in the undergrowth. Yet by staying present with something positive for more than 10 seconds, this allows the experience to move from the short term memory into the long term. As they say, “neurons that fire together, wire together”, so each time we do this, it helps the brain become more wired to perceive the good.

In Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain—and Your Life, Dr. Rick Hanson suggests an easy to remember four-step process to help this happen. He calls these steps HEAL, which stands for:

Have a Positive Experience – Notice a current positive experience or feeling, or bring to mind something you have been grateful for in the past.
Enrich it – Stay really present with this positive experience, savouring and enjoying how it feels in your body and mind. Do this for 10 seconds or longer.
Absorb it – Make it your intention to let this positive experience sink in. Sense it as something precious and allow it to become part of you.
Link Positive and Negative Material (optional) – Once you have focussed your attention successfully on a positive experience, try to become aware of any related negative experiences in the background. For example, if your positive experience is of your current good health, you may find that it is linked in some way to memories of poor health in the past. Remain centred in the positive, but allow the negative to also be present. If this is difficult to do, move attention away from the negative and just rest in the good.

Letting in the Good Helps Others Too

There are times when it may feel selfish to enjoy positive things. There is, after all, so much suffering in the world. People go through horrendous ordeals, and this can make us feel a sense of guilt for being happy or spending time thinking about how good life is. However, becoming more mindful and grateful for the positive things in our lives is far from being a selfish practice.

When we experience the good more deeply, we also start to see more good around us. We see the good in others, which makes us more patient and caring when we are with them. We also see the good in ourselves, meaning that we become more able to give ourselves to others, rather than holding back through fears of not being good enough, not being lovable, or not being capable enough to offer support and kindness.

Much of the suffering in the world is caused by fear and anger. Fear and anger are very real, but that doesn’t mean that happiness and love aren’t as equally as real. Taking in the good is not about losing touch with reality, it’s about becoming more intimate with the full spectrum of human experience. Noticing and staying with good experiences is good for our own health and wellbeing, and for the world.