Three steps forward, two steps back.
Why is it always easier to see where we’ve gone wrong, reverted to old behaviors, or screwed up? Why is that ice cold glass full of sparkling water always half empty?
(If yours is half full, my hat is tipped--truly. But if, like me, it’s far easier for you to notice what’s going wrong in life, keep reading.)
This tendency to focus on the negative isn't just because we humans are pessimists at heart.
The “glass-is-half-empty” tendency has actually been studied, and it’s much bigger than anybody who feels like an ungrateful Negative Nancy. There’s real scientific speculation that negativity is the just way that we’re wired.
Scholars hypothesize that as a species we’ve literally been programmed to hold onto the "bad": it's what kept our ancestors safe for thousands of years. See, our long ago tree-sleeping-stone-tool-using relatives had to remember the poisonous snake, the berries that sickened, and the riptide that took a family member—it was likely an adaptive trait. They also had to keep an eye out for the possible trouble in the future.
Noticing (and remembering) the “bad” might literally have been what kept us reproducing and staying alive all these years.*
While this negatively tuned perception of the world might have worked wonderfully for our ancestors, for a lot of us it’s what makes life so difficult now. Paying extra attention to the negative keeps us focused on what’s not working, transfixed on where we went wrong, or worried about the future.
Negativity (adaptive or not) can cause us to miss the truly wonderful things in our life. And honestly, it just doesn’t feel too good.
But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we could change the way that we perceive the world? Are we humans merely slaves to our perceptive resting place, or is there another option?
Energy Goes Where Attention Flows
Although it might be easier to notice the downside of any situation, it’s really only that: easy. Changing our mental habits is kind of like changing our physical ones: at first we feel gangling and awkward, exhausted with effort, and not sure there’s a point. It’s hard.
But the longer we practice re-routing our mental currents, the less work it will eventually be. Just because negativity is easy doesn’t mean it’s inevitable: and this negative current can be rerouted, if we practice a simple exercise as frequently as we can.
We’ve all heard of gratitude, partly because it’s a buzzword often tossed around in wellness communities and spiritual memes. But gratitude for our lives is more than just something we talk about on Thanksgiving, or a feeling that we know we should have, but don’t.
Actually feeling grateful (rather than simply knowing we should be) might just be a muscle that we’ve got to work out on a regular basis. Intentionally noticing what’s going right, who’s treating us well, and all of the ways we’re fortunate can come easier the longer we do it.
Gratitude can also have some pretty amazing (and proven) benefits. Studies on the practice of gratitude have found that individuals reported:
- Better feelings about life as a whole
- More optimism about the future
- Less physical symptoms
- More personal goal attainment over a two month period
It seems the practice of gratitude can only serve to make us happier, regardless of where our wellbeing rests individually.
How to Practice Active Gratitude
One way to implement gratitude into your daily life is by making a “gratitude list.” This is often done in the morning, as close to when you wake up as possible: getting out a piece of paper (or your phone) and listing as many things as you can think of to be grateful for.
It can be as small as the sunlight streaming in your window or as big as the Nobel Prize you won last night (nice job, by the way.) Doing this is in the morning can counteract the negativity that could naturally creep in, and redirect your consciousness to an already existing bright spot.
Another gratitude practice is keeping a “Happiness Jar.” This doesn’t have to be a jar (it can be shoe box or a milk jug or anything you can fill with scraps of paper.) At the end of any day, write down the best moment that you remember, or the thing that you were most grateful for. Toss the scraps of paper into the jar as the days go by, and watch it fill with the small moments that you might otherwise have forgotten.
A benefit to the jar is that simply searching for the highlights of the day can route your mind into a grateful current, and writing them down makes them more salient in your mind. (It’s also a great jar to open on a day that you’re feeling down and in need of a pick-me-up.)
While both of these activities can be practiced alone, the outcome is only magnified if shared with others. Pitch the gratitude list to a few friends and suggest a daily gratitude text exchange; fill the happiness jar with not just your own moments, but the highlights of your family’s day as well. If energy goes where attention flows, why not share that energy with others? The act of practicing gratitude together could unite us all in the search for the positive.
Finally, when actively practicing gratitude, it’s important to keep in mind the “active” part of the equation.
Even if you have to fake it.
Acting grateful and being grateful are two different things. I know that I’ve said I’m grateful for things like “my health” and then gobbled up a donut (or three) a moment later. While there’s nothing wrong with donuts (in fact, there’s a lot right about them) it’s important to notice the things that we’re grateful for and act in accordance.
Grateful for your partner? Write them a love note and tell them about it.
Grateful for your job? Put in 110% today.
Grateful for your health? Give your body some TLC.
Practicing active gratitude is asking ourselves: how would a person who’s grateful for X act?
At times a gratitude list is the precise thing that shows me where I’m inconsistent in life: how carelessly I might be treating something (or someone) that I claim to be grateful for. And it can be the counteraction I take to personify gratitude that actually makes me feel it.
Sometimes acting (literally pretending to act like a grateful person) can bring about the feeling itself. (The good old “fake it ‘till you make it” idea.)
Ultimately, we humans have a fair amount of genetics working against us. This negative lens can let our first world problems get the best of our mental state, and our inability to rise above them can make things feel even worse. Dedicating effort to seeing the positive in our own lives isn’t being selfish or acting in denial; it can bring us into a state of wellbeing that makes us more helpful to the world as a whole.
Today I’m grateful for the fingers to type this, the glasses that help me to see, and the fact that you got all the way to the end of this post.
What are you grateful for? Tell me in the comments.