Updated 04 December 2014

Negative mindset helped our forefathers survive

Ever wondered why good news doesn’t sell, and why we tend to focus so much more on the negative than the positive?


Ever wondered why good news doesn’t sell, and why we tend to focus so much more on the negative than the positive?

Neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson explains how this mindset helped our forefathers survive in a world where life was dangerous and predators lurked around every corner.

In order to survive and propagate, every species has to distinguish between what Hanson calls the “sticks” and the “carrots”. The carrots were things like food, shelter and sex and the sticks were predators, starvation and aggression from others of the same species.

In order to survive, it was more important to focus on the sticks than the carrots – for the simple reason that if you for instance didn’t manage to avoid the claws and teeth of a predator, you ended up dead. Food, shelter and sex, although important for survival, involved much less urgency. If you didn’t eat today, there was always tomorrow.

Like water through a sieve

Hanson calls our brains “Velcro for the bad” and “Teflon for the good” and explains how they’re structured to hold on to unpleasant memories much more readily than good ones. Unpleasant experiences involve fear with the outpouring of stress hormones like adrenaline. This prioritises the stressful event for storage in our brains.

We do remember happy events, but because they don’t have survival value, unless we pay special attention to them, they tend to “flow through our brains like water through a sieve”.

He adds that in order for our brains to be receptive to positive input, our core needs – safety, satisfaction and connection – need to be met. When this happens we are in our “green” mode. The opposite of that is our “red” mode, which is ruled by fear.

Our ancestors spent a lot of time in “red” states, punctuated by brief “reactive” periods of recovery. For modern man this situation has reversed but old habits die hard and most of us are plagued by a pervasive sense of insecurity and “chronic inner homelessness”.

Changing the way we think

In the second part of the book Hanson shows us how to “hardwire happiness” and make it a permanent part of our lives. The acronym HEAL encapsulates the process: (1) Have a positive experience. (2) Enrich it. (3) Absorb it. (4) Link positive and negative material.

Our parents and grandparents grew up with books like The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952) and since then there has been no shortage of books advocating the benefits of changing the way we think.

So, is Hardwiring Happiness really all that different from all the other self-help books out there?

The answer is essentially no, but don’t let it put you off. Although, like all the other books, it shows us how to replace negative thoughts and attitudes with positive ones, it does so from a fresh and interesting perspective.

His approach towards changing our outlook and “hardwiring happiness” by consciously holding on to positive things also goes far beyond the mere repetition of mantras.

The greatest difference between Hanson’s book and most others, however, is his well-researched scientific (but readable) approach to the topic. The main selling point of the book is the way it explains why and how we are biased towards the negative. Understanding why we do what we do is a battle half won. 

Read more:

Feeling negative, stressed and depressed? You can blame it on our ancestors, says Rick Hanson

Negative thoughts can trigger depression

Negativity may hurt heart

Is negative stress a common phenomenon?


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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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