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How to rewire your brain towards positive thinking

March 29, 2021
By Bill Howatt

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Mental Fitness: The next frontier in workplace mental health’ is a weekly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa. This series takes a deeper look at mental fitness — an approach to prevent mental harm and promote mental health.

“If you want to become a positive person, you must decide you want to retire from having negative thoughts.” – Dr. Bill Howatt

How many negative thoughts do you think you have a day?

The more negative thoughts, the more efficient your brain gets at creating negative them.


It is not uncommon to justify a negative thought about someone else as being well deserved. However, we may not be aware we are not only potentially hurting them, but we are also hurting ourselves. The more we can stop being negative towards others and ourselves, the less negative thinking will rule how we experience the world.

Negative thoughts do more harm than help over the long term. For this microskill, the focus is not on mental illness; it is on mental health prevention.

Most of us benefit from a little less negative thinking and a little more positive thinking.

Why this microskill matters

  • Researchers from King’s College found constant negative thinking can increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A key finding from this study is that negative thinking reduces the brain’s capability to think, reason and form memories.
  • People with high levels of negativity (for example: constantly cynical) are more at risk of dementia.

Donald Hebb is known for saying, “Neurons that fire together wire together,” suggesting the brain is not fixed. This means that if being negative has become our bias as the way we see the world, we can change how our brain is wired by focusing on positives and catching ourselves to stop negative thoughts as our go-to thoughts.

Rewiring the brain to be positive

Rewiring your brain to be more positive requires a few key ingredients: patience, commitment, and moment-by-moment intention.

Start the 30-day negative thought stop challenge and you will see an improvement within 30 days.

This can help shape your mood and how you see the world. As odd as it may sound, reducing negative thinking is not as complex as some may believe; it often requires just deciding to do it.

However, some who have more clinical issues may require support to learn how to cope with anxiety and depression.

Supporting your 30-day challenge

Get a negative thoughts baseline: Every time you have a negative thought throughout the day, record it. Do not judge it or the number you have.

The first day is to get your baseline. Notice how many times you have a negative thought about yourself or another person. You may miss a few, as the brain is fast. Do not fret about it; just get a baseline number.

Be honest with yourself:  Track your negative thoughts every day for the next 29 days and set a goal of improving a bit each day.

Do not expect perfection. The goal is by the last week to be averaging fewer negative thoughts each day.

This challenge can help bring to your level of awareness what you believe you want to do and think can happen. Being more positive begins with intention and belief.

Begin your challenge consciously: Set the expectation with your powerful conscious brain that you will be more positive. This means committing to not complaining or joining in on any negative group thinking.

This one decision can help create more of a pause and avoid engaging in negative thinking. Listen to yourself carefully. You may be surprised how this can help you edit and reduce the number of negative thoughts you share with others.

Notice negative thoughts as they come into your head: As a negative thought comes into your head, treat it with curiosity. Ask, “Why am I having this thought now?”

Look for the why and you may find it is linked to an expectation or a belief. It is these little acts that can start to rewire your brain. Instead of negative thoughts showing up when they want, they become thoughts that are not fully bought into and are questioned.

Trade in negative thoughts for positive ones: The mind is quite interesting. If you have a negative thought (for example: “I am dumb — I cannot believe I made this mistake”), you can in time train your brain that when you notice a negative thought you will trade it for a positive one.

Instead of focusing on “dumb” and replaying that over and over, focus on when you last felt confident and competent and how long and how much learning it took to get to this point.

By sitting in this replay of positive thinking for about 20 seconds, the brain discovers that success is a process and there are often potholes on the way.

This intentional reframing to a positive thought helps to train your subconscious mind to look for positive — rather than negative — thoughts.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting and the former Chief of Research and Workforce Productivity at The Conference Board of Canada.

If there is a particular microskill or topic you would like to see Dr. Howatt write on that supports employees’ mental health in the workplace, please send your request to Talent Canada editor Marcel Vander Wier.

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