I’m about to give you a crash course in biological psychology 101: every human being has a monkey in his or her head. This monkey is our mammalian brain, a remnant of our evolution that governs our survival mechanisms, which include fighting, fleeing, feeding, and uh…fornicating.
Another part of our survival “wiring” is a strong negativity bias. Simply put, we’re biologically predisposed to seek out potentially harmful things in our environment. This has served us well over millennia, but also has a potential downside: if you let your brain monkey run wild in your mental zoo, you will chronically fixate on the negative.
The good news is, our brains also have the wonderful neocortex, the source of reason and symbolic thinking. We can train ourselves to become more mindful of the mammalian brain’s influence. We can actively use the newer part of our brain to counter our instinctual impulses. Just as negativity can become a habit, so can a more optimistic worldview.
To put it another way, if the mammalian brain is the monkey, the neocortex is the zookeeper. We don’t have to just take the crap the monkey brain flings at us. The big takeaway from this biology lesson is: it is vital to stay aware of our negativity bias, so we don’t become chronically pessimistic about the world.
Note that an optimistic worldview doesn’t mean blindly ignoring how the world can be dangerous and depressing. It most certainly can. But when you have a negativity addiction (research has shown we can indeed become addicted to cortisol, our primary stress hormone), it becomes much harder to remember there are good things in life as well.
Many people who consider themselves “realists” are actually stuck in a pessimistic mindset fueled by a chronic negativity bias. But the truth is, a “real” realist strives to appreciate both the beauty and the ugliness that coexist in the world. Acknowledging (rather than ignoring) the bittersweet nature of reality is important to truly appreciating life.
Unfortunately, a big part of what many consider “toxic” masculinity includes an unhealthy dose of pessimism. Too many of us are taught to approach life like soldiers in a never-ending war. But there’s a better alternative: to see life with a heroic mindset, where your obstacles are challenges to be overcome, and there’s valuable wisdom to be gained by finding solutions to your problems.
Like anything else worthwhile, it takes repeated effort to become the keeper of your monkey. But the benefits of taking charge of your mental zoo are well worth the time it takes to develop an optimistic thinking habit.
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