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Usable Knowledge

A Better Way of Thinking

How mindfulness can help you build positive habits of mind and defeat stress or worry
An illustration of purple butterflies on a yellow background

Adapted from a previously published article.

One valuable, often overlooked, and durable way to manage stress and recurring anxiety is to build positive habits of thinking, slowly and over time. 

Habit and the Brain

Colloquially speaking, our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative. The human brain evolved with a “negativity bias,” says mindfulness expert Metta McGarvey, which gives negative events and thoughts a proportionally greater impact on our memory and psychological state than positive ones. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense — strong recollection of bad experiences means we’re more likely to learn from mistakes and avoid a life-threatening situation.

But this negativity bias also means that smaller, day-to-day stressors tend to take precedence in our thoughts, leaving less room for positive framing or constructive action planning. 

Happily, our brains can change as we learn; we can teach ourselves to accentuate positive experiences and maintain serenity, says McGarvey. In a process called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” neural connections can grow based on what we’re learning. Repeating the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increases synaptic connectivity, strengthens neural networks, and creates new neurons through learning. In other words, practicing a positive habit can predispose our thoughts to be more affirmative. See brain training exercises below the video.

Brain Training

The key to developing these positive habits? Mindfulness, which McGarvey explains as “single-tasking” — approaching any situation with your undivided attention, and keeping that attention anchored to the present moment.

By approaching homework, college essays, or job-hunting with mindfulness, you decrease the amount of energy you spend worrying about the past or the future, and you increase the amount of attention you give to present and positive experiences. But because stress and worrying can be so engrained, you have to practice (and keep practicing) the skills and habits you need to keep your attention on the present.

Five Mindfulness Tips to Build Positive Habits

  • Several times a day, take a short break from whatever you’re doing — step away from the computer, put down your phone, close your book — and look at something different. Savor a feeling of calm for a minute or two.
  • Practice looking for small moments of beauty or kindness throughout your day. Focusing on the positive will strengthen your ability to turn your attention away from worries.
  • Search for and comment on the positive qualities and actions of others. Appreciating the good in others “creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ that builds positive communication and relational habits,” McGarvey says.
  • Develop a habit of exercising — to make it easier to relax and to recover from stress. 
  • ​Remember that habits can be hard to form, and change takes time. Try to be persistent with your mindfulness practices, but don’t beat yourself up if you slip and find yourself getting stressed. Just keep trying.


We’re in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. What can we do? In a series of pieces, we look at how to help teenagers face their fears, build resilience, and grapple with the pressure to achieve — on the road to college and beyond. Read more at What Do Anxious Teens Need?

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