A few months ago, I was standing in the changing room of our gym when one of the members started complaining about the parking. During busy times, there usually isn’t enough parking for the number of people who belong there. As I listened, I was agreeing in my head. I’ve often thought, For the amount of money we pay, I should be able to drive right up a find a parking spot!
The complaining woman left, and the woman she was speaking to turned and said to me, “Really? We belong to this beautiful gym, and all she can do is complain?” Her comment took me by surprise and then humbled me. She was the one who was right. There are many wonderful things to say and appreciate about our gym. It has beautiful pools, plentiful equipment, and a wide range of exercise classes. It’s also beautifully maintained with many amenities and a friendly staff.
It struck me that I often fall into that trap, noticing the negative, looking for what went wrong, or might go wrong, or will go wrong.
I do it with my husband. When my husband cleans up the kitchen, I’m more irritated that he left water on the counter than grateful that he helped.
I do it with my kids. I tend to notice when the kids misbehave more than when they behave.
I do it in traffic. I do it at the grocery store. I do it more than I want to do it.
Psychologist and author Rick Hanson explains that we’re built this way:
Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.
That’s because—in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived—if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick—a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species—WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.
Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.
But we don’t have to stay that way. I don’t want to stay this way.
Every day hundreds of good things surround us and happen to us. If we stop ourselves in any given moment, we can probably list multiple good things that are happening to us at that very instant.
For example, when I’m in traffic, I’ll remind myself: I have a car, I have a car that works, I have enough money to pay for gas to get to where I need to go, and it’s a beautiful day (as it almost always is in California).
When my kids have sent me over the edge, I remind myself that they are healthy, smart, and incredibly cute. It also helps me to remember that kids usually act like… kids.
When I’m falling asleep at night, a time when I can start to mull over in my mind the negative things that happened that day, I’ll instead tell myself that I have a comfortable bed to sleep in, my neighborhood is relatively safe, and my children (usually) sleep through the night.
As you start to practice focusing on the good in your life, it combats the negative and shifts your mindset. Life will still be challenging. But practicing a positive bias can help us find more satisfaction and joy in the life that we have. Dr. Hanson explains that focusing on the good actually changes your neural structure to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others.
Every time I shift my thinking to the positive, I notice that my mind clears, I’m less anxious, and I start to relax. I realize that the sky isn’t falling and I’ll probably live to see another day. I begin to enjoy my life more.
A negative mind will never give you a positive life. – Unknown Author
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8 (NIV)