Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Retirement…the freedom beckons! An open page, a new canvas, the freedom to choose what, when and how you will spend each day. At first it can feel like an extended holiday, doing all those things you have been waiting to do. But even though you don’t have the work-related sources of stress anymore – your brain doesn’t know that! It likes to keep things running just like always…which means sooner or later, your thoughts will tend to focus more on worries and problems and less on those aspects and experiences in your life that you enjoy.
What’s going on?
It can be surprising to discover in retirement how our human mind still has a tendency to get tied up in knots of anxiety and stress. This is due in part to what is called the brain’s negativity bias, a function of the brain that evolved to be on the look-out for and defend us against real and perceived threats to our well being. While this function helped our cavemen ancestors survive the physical threats to their life, the negativity bias is now recognized in neuroscience and psychology as outmoded. These days our challenges are more psychological than physical.
Two particular aspects of the brain’s negativity bias undermine our well being;
1. Pleasant things we experience in life tend to stream through our minds like water through a sieve.
Negative experiences however, tend to stick in our minds like a burr to clothing.
2. The mind can become so absorbed in things of the past and projecting into the future that more often than we realize, it completely misses out on what is good in the present.
You might relate to this story:
On a bright, sunny winter’s day I was out doing one my favourite winter recreational activities – cross country skiing.
As I started out I was caught up in the joy of good companionship, the natural beauty of my surroundings, and the rhythmic feeling of pole, kick and glide. Some five minutes later I suddenly stopped in my tracks.
My thoughts were whirling and ping-ponging inside my head – from planning tomorrow to wondering what to make for dinner that night, ruminating over an unresolved concern, thinking about a project…
Here I was outdoors, doing one of my favourite things, and I was missing it all! I was feeling stressed and disappointed. And disconnected – from myself, my surroundings, and my friends.
In addition to missing out on what is pleasant and beneficial in the present, the brain’s negative preoccupation has us mentally and physically braced and on guard. This state of heightened reactivity wears and tears on every system in our body, drains our mental and emotional energy and undermines our productivity, thinking, memory, relationships, health and life satisfaction.
What can we do about it?
Being human we have the unique ability to counter the brain’s negativity bias and cultivate our emotional and physical well-being. Structures in our brain strengthen and build to support what we repeatedly focus on. Neuroscience offers us many quick, pleasant practices that utilize our brain’s capacity to change itself for the better, to ‘update’ its neural structure in a sustainable way. This is called positive neuroplasticity.
Two practices are things we already do: spending time in the present and soaking up positive experiences and emotions. Key to their lasting effectiveness however, is spending about 12 seconds (or more) with them. 12 seconds you ask? That doesn’t seem very long. In fact however, 12 seconds is much longer than we usually give a pleasant experience or thought.
All kinds of positive things happen during our day – most without our really noticing. When we take 12 seconds, or more, to really notice them, to savour and soak in them, our well-being networks light up and multiply. Like a muscle, the more often we exercise those neural pathways of well-being, the stronger and more automatic they become.
The more mindful we are - the more attention (duration, frequency, quality) we place on our positive experiences, thoughts and feelings – the more we are giving our brain what it needs to encode and install them into neural structure and function, rather than quickly pass through. This creates a cascade of beneficial reactions in our brain and body that translate into clearer thinking and communication, resilience and vitality. We are changing our brain to be less at the mercy of unhelpful negative and stress-producing thoughts and to be more receptive to and enjoy more of the things we enjoy.
Food for Thought
What might you enjoy savouring for 12 seconds, or longer, today?
How might you remind yourself to notice, pause, and savour?
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm and confidence. New York: Harmony Books.
Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain : The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Catherine Miller, M.A., IAC-MCC
Certified Master Life Coach
This blog series shares current neuroscience understandings of how to teach and train your mind so that you can experience more of your innate emotional well being more often and for longer periods of time throughout this next chapter in your life.