Reboot Your Brain (and Save Your Marriage in the Process)

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about how our brains are wired for negativity. Back in the old days, this negativity bias helped us survive by constantly scanning the horizon for trouble. But since we no longer need to be on alert for lion attacks (well, most of us, anyway), our brain keeps us needlessly anxious and vigilant. As you can probably guess, this creates a lot of havoc in our lives–not to mention our marriages.

If we’re always looking for the bad stuff, always looking for the mistakes, you can bet things are going to suck. But wait, there’s good news! We can change this dynamic in our marriages and in our lives by changing what we focus on. Literally.

Find 3 positive things for every negative one and you’ll turn your life around.

In his book Before Happiness, Shawn Achor talks about our ability to turn things around by focusing on 3 positive thoughts or interactions for each negative one. He writes movingly about how this 3:1 positivity ratio has helped giant corporations (not to mention plenty of people) turn their lives and businesses around, going  from failing to flourishing.

Why would it take so many positive things to trump one negative thing, you ask. Wouldn’t one positive thought about your sucky job be enough to cancel out one negative one?

Sadly, no. As Rick Hanson explains in his kick-ass book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom:

amour license plateYour brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones–even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive (41).

Yeah, that’s right. Read that one again. You’ll remember way more of the shitty things that have happened to you than you will the good stuff. Fucked up, right?

That’s why it’s essential that you put the time and energy into a) remembering the good stuff and b) replacing each shitty thought or action with at least 3 positive ones.

Now, here’s the trick: if you’re doing this in your marriage, the ratio becomes 5:1. That’s 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one.


I know, I know. I’ve got a lot of work to do, too.

But as psychologist John Gottman has shown, marriages with a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences have the best chance of surviving. Those with a lower ratio have a significantly higher rate of divorce.

Which kind of makes sense, when you think about it. I mean, who the hell wants to hang out with a spouse who berates them all the time, makes them feel bad, or worse?

The good news is that we can change this. And we can do it pretty easily by changing our thoughts and our interactions with our loved ones. For example, instead of complaining that your hubby bought the wrong item at the store (guilty!), you can thank him for getting the groceries.

That’s 1.

Maybe you give your wife a hug when you get home. 2.

And a kiss. That’s 3.

How about asking how her day is going? 4.

And really, truly listening (no checking of phones allowed!). That’s 5.

Pretty simple, huh?

After that, keep going. Start with the small stuff, then work your way up from there.

It seems so simple, but if you can really implement this technique, it will change your life. I promise.

P.S.: This technique also works wonders with your kids. Anytime you give specific detailed feedback on how awesome your kid is (or what he/she’s doing right), it’ll beat the pants off any threat or complaint. The key is in being specific (thanks for helping me carry these groceries in) v. generalities (good job!) and in being consistent with this technique. Reward them for all the awesome things they do and how incredible they are instead of only giving them your time and attention when they’ve fucked up. (For more info on this one, read Howard Glasser’s brilliant book All Children Flourishing: Igniting the Greatness of Our Children.)

Any one of these things will show your loves ones that you’ve noticed them. And after all, we all want to be seen, don’t we?

We all want to matter.

Want more info? Check out Shawn Achor’s hilarious TED talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) or these awesome books for more details:


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