How To Train Your Brain To Cultivate Positive Emotions

What is empathy and why is it different from sympathy, pity, and compassion?

How do you cultivate empathy?

Now that we know what defines empathy, let’s understand how to cultivate it. Theresa Wiseman, Professor and Researcher in the field of empathy and nursing defines four attributes of empathy, as shown below.

2) Cultivating Positive Emotions: Gratitude 

Experiencing negative emotions is part of being human. Both negative and positive emotions are useful. When danger is perceived, the brain’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, allowing you to react to fight or flight. But, when a negative emotion becomes chronic, it can lead to a decline in psychological well-being. 

Positive feelings such as love, compassion, and appreciation activate the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. Researchers have found that cultivating positive emotions not only increases joy and contentment but also becomes the default network to rely on during times of uncertainty and distress. 

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means graciousness, or gratefulness. Research suggests that practicing gratitude and keeping weekly gratitude journals can increase well-being, you can also feel better about life as a whole and be optimistic. 

3) Bringing Kindness into Awareness 

When you experience the feeling of open-heartedness, your ability to show compassion, and care for yourself and others can increase. This feeling of openness can be felt in your body and mind. Your body and mind will start feeling spacious, grounded, and alert!

You might have noted this feeling, when you witness random acts of kindness, breath deepens and the body starts to feel relaxed. You can’t help, but smile! It is important to be intentional, open, and observe without being judgmental to experience these positive emotions. 

Practical steps to kindle kind awareness 

Kindheartedness is easy enough to experience when things are going well, but what about when they aren’t? What if you are in a bad mood or feeling stressed

Here are 5 steps to help incline you towards kind awareness in challenging moments

  1. Observe: notice how you are feeling in your body and mind.
  2. Recognize: know what it is you are experiencing. It can be anger, discomfort, sadness, confusion, or anxiety. Use anchor words.
  3. Accept: acknowledge that this is how you are feeling in that moment without extra judgment or needing to change it.
  4. Breathe: Allow yourself to feel that emotion for several breaths. With each breath, you can give it space by imagining it being held not only by you but by the whole world. The purpose is to allow the feeling of contraction to loosen up.
  5. Care: Intentionally add qualities of kindness, the way you would with a friend or a small child who came to you upset.

4) Heartfulness and Practice 

Our brains are hardwired to be alert to the negative or any threat! This is why the Care in step 5 is so necessary to practice and cultivate. The heartfulness practice inclines the mind towards kindness and compassion. The mental repetition of heartfulness phrases can be used as a daily practice (like mindful breathing) and also used to help care for yourself when experiencing difficult circumstances.

You can think of the heartfulness practice as a ‘digestion’ practice. As you continue to digest the negatives or obstacles, you can cultivate open-heartedness. You can feel positive about your past, and absorb the experiences into a more integrated whole.

To summarize, there are three potential ways that heartfulness may work: cultivation, digestion, and concentration. You want to make sure that all these three ways of practice are implemented. 

5) Don’t leave yourself out! 

Finally, you always want to be careful not to leave yourself out of heartfulness practice. Be kind to yourself when you misstep, it happens to all of us. This may upset us, causing anger or frustration, that you feel about yourself or others. But it’s important to pause and ask, how long can you keep directing these emotions away from yourself, onto others? 

Start by practicing self-compassion. It refers to our capacity for tenderness in the face of our limitations, disappointments, or struggles. Self-compassion is not an evaluation of oneself but a relationship to experience. 


  • Don’t forget to take your kindness vaccine, kindness starts by being kind to yourself first, so practice self-compassion. 
  • Choose to make kindness your default network, so you can welcome positive emotions. 
  • Give to give, not to receive, soften your anger, judgment, and criticism. 
  • Remember that you become kinder as you practice, and it can create a ripple effect. 
  • Think of three things you can do to love yourself or others. Write the three things down and try to stay committed. 
  • Breathe in to discover love and compassion within you, and breathe out to spread kindness to the outside world. 
  • And finally, make kindness and gratitude lasting!


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About the author:

Sujatha is the study manager and content creator extraordinaire on the Shapa Health team. With a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India, she furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. Currently, she resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. Over the past 2 years, Sujatha developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. As part of the Shapa Health team she designs personalized missions utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn.

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