We’re told that our state of mind is the key to leading a happy life and in achieving our goals. But let’s get realistic here – no matter how much we try to remain focussed on what’s right with our world as opposed to what’s wrong, it really isn’t realistic to expect anyone to think positive thoughts 100% of the time. Life can throw us curve-balls which have to be dealt with and nobody would argue that it’s difficult, if not impossible to think positive thoughts if you are going through a break-up, have lost your job or are mourning the loss of a loved one.
We all face challenges and nobody expects us to radiate gratitude, positivity and happiness when we are dealing with them. Or to be able to divert our thoughts away from what’s going on. However upsetting these events may be, they do eventually pass and we can begin to appreciate our lives again.
So, under normal circumstances what can we do to improve our ‘thought focus’ and up our ability to concentrate on the positive aspects of our lives? According to researchers, whether or not you can maintain a positive outlook depends on the patterns of thought we create in our brains.
During a recent study, researchers invited participants to play a guessing game and answer questions about their feelings over their smartphones for a 10 day period. The guessing game would ask questions such as ‘The computer has picked No.5. Guess whether the next number will be high or lower.’ Respondents could win money or nothing based on their answers.
Winning was intended to create a burst of positive emotion while losing negative feelings. To see how long these feelings lingered, the researchers then asked follow-up questions every 15 minutes after the game to see whether people were still experiencing positive or negative responses – or neither. They also performed MRI scans on some of the volunteers during the game to see whether there was a link between brain activity and the ability to maintain and enjoy, positive feelings.
What they then discovered was that people with increased activity in a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum were able to maintain a positive mind-set for longer periods of time that others. This is the brain’s ‘reward and learning’ sector. The researchers also discovered that activity in another sector of the brain – the dorsal prefrontal cortex, determined how fast volunteers experienced positive emotions having won a reward.
Now, here’s where it gets really interesting as these areas of the brain are stimulated by certain thought patterns aside from things like winning rewards. They can be stimulated consciously by us simply by thinking thoughts centered around what Buddhists call ‘loving kindness’ and compassion towards others!
Now, when we stop to think about it, when we learn to meditate or follow a spiritual path, this is the goal we are aiming for. So, if we want to enjoy increased feelings of wellbeing and positive thoughts for longer, we can say the ‘ground breaking’ conclusion of this study is that we should meditate and try whenever possible to think loving thoughts towards others. Which is what in effect spiritual teachings have been saying for thousands of years!
In other words, science has again caught up with ancient wisdom. So, you can train your brain to focus on the positive – simply by meditating and thinking with compassion. So send loving thoughts out there – just as I’m sending out mine from me to you.
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