The human brain has an in-built negativity bias – we are primed to be on the look-out for danger, expecting the worst. It is an evolutionary hangover from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose survival depended on it.
In fact, research suggests that our brains have evolved to hardwire negative experiences into our long-term memories instantaneously. Whereas positive experiences tend to wash over us without leaving much of a trace in our neural pathways.
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This is why neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson writes in his book, Hardwiring Happiness: “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones”.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way. Something called "self-directed neuroplasticity" means that we can choose to pay attention to the good things in our lives, which not only makes us happier and healthier, but it can also actually help us learn better.
So, what are the implications of all of this in the classroom?
'Red' and 'Green' modes
Well, Hanson explains that when our brains are focusing on the bad stuff, they can operate on what he calls "red brain" mode.
This is where a child’s brain perceives a threat (which could simply be the teacher telling the class that there will be a spelling test that day), and they kick into "fight or flight". Their senses narrow as they fixate on the "danger", they see fewer options open to them and they can become worse at problem-solving.
When a child’s brain is on "red", it becomes much harder for them to learn as the thinking parts of the brain shut down as they go into "avoidance" and survival mode.
Conversely, when their brains operate in "green" mode, Hanson explains, children become a lot more flexible in their thinking, they rise to challenges without them becoming stressors, they learn more easily and they actually forge stronger relationships with the people around them.
Behaviour: shifting the focus
Clearly, having children whose brains are on "green" mode is far more conducive for learning in the classroom.
Hanson believes that by teaching children to "take in the good", we can rewire their negativity bias so that they can notice and savour the positive in their lives, allowing them to access their "green brain" more often.
Here are three simple activities to try that, over time, should help your students to notice and savour the positive in their lives more.
1. What Went Well
At the end of each week (or this could be done daily with older students), get your children to reflect back over their week in school. Ask them to talk with a partner and try and remember some of the positive things that have happened (e.g., eating their favourite lunch, a fun PE lesson, handing in their homework project on time, getting good feedback). Then, on a sticky note, ask them to write down three good things that have gone well for them that week.
Each child could share one of their good things with the whole class before sticking their note on a "What Went Well?" display.
This simple activity has been shown to boost people’s happiness and wellbeing, while reducing depressive symptoms.
2. Thank-you letter
Ask your children to think of someone in their lives who is important to them, someone who does a lot for them but who, maybe, they take for granted. Ask them to think of all the things that the person does for them, big and small, and jot a few of them down. Now, ask them to write a short thank-you letter, expressing gratitude for all of the things they appreciate and why that person is important to them.
Once the letters are written, their job is simply to give their letter to their special person. Expressing gratitude switches us out of a mode of thinking where we focus on what we lack, to a mode where we appreciate what we have. Studies show that people who express gratitude regularly are happier, more optimistic and healthier, too.
3. Savouring meditation
Ask your students to sit upright, shoulders relaxed and to close their eyes. Next, ask them to bring to mind a happy memory from the past. Maybe it’s a special occasion like a meal or a party. Or maybe it’s a memory of being outside playing with some friends.
Whatever they bring to mind, ask them to relive that positive experience in their mind. Notice who else is there. Are there any strong smells or sounds in this happy memory? Notice how it feels in their bodies to be reliving this happy time.
One study showed that just spending 15 mins a day, for three days in a row, thinking about happy memories from the past boosted happiness in the participants up to one month later.
No rose-tinted glasses
An important point to note is that "rewiring the negativity bias" is not about ignoring the hard aspects of our lives or putting on rose-tinted glasses or teaching children that negative emotions are bad.
When we "take in the good", we are learning to notice and savour the small everyday things that typically pass us by. It’s about levelling the playing field so that as well as noticing the bad stuff, our brains also savour the good. And that balance is where happiness lies.