Last time I talked about how we have a choice of stories to tell about our lives. We can tell the negative version or the positive version. It’s the difference between saying “Ugh! I have piles of dirty dishes to wash! Woe is me! ” Or “Wow! I have a sink, and a countertop and dishes to eat off of, and apparently food to eat as well, because otherwise my dishes wouldn’t be dirty! I am pretty fortunate.”
The difference between the two stories is not a question of accuracy but of attitude.
But as I mentioned last time, it’s often very hard to notice and remember the positive things, since as humans, we are programmed with a negativity bias which is great for staying alive the jungle, but less great for being happy and content.
Why so negative?
As humans we’re also really good at pattern recognition. We like seeing patterns, and things that don’t fit with the pattern stick out a mile. As an example, if you were to walk into a beautifully painted and furnished room that happened to have an ink stain or a small tear in the middle of the rug, you would almost definitely notice and focus on the stain rather than the pleasant effect of the rest of the room. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good thing that we especially notice things that don’t fit in. It makes us very good at locating and solving problems.
It’s a cliché that people who don’t have much appreciate what they do have more than people who have a lot. It’s also usually true. But it’s not something to be ashamed of if we happen to be blessed. It’s normal. It makes sense. The good things that make up the fabric of our lives form a pattern of peace and plenty. It makes sense that we should be accustomed to that and see any deviation from that pattern as an aberration. Similarly, a person whose life’s pattern is made up of danger and want will see good things as unusual and notice them more. If you’re starving and cold all the time and you are offered a warm delicious meal, a hot shower, and a cozy bed, you will definitely appreciate those things more than someone who has them every night.
But that doesn’t make you better than someone who has more blessings than you. For the moment, you could say that you are more aware of the goodness of your situation, but it would be equally true to say that they are more aware of the badness of things in their situation.
So the solution isn’t shaming ourselves for not noticing our blessings. (I’m imagining the stereotyped parent scolding his child for not appreciating dinner when children are starving in Africa.) Shame is neither appropriate nor helpful. What we need is gratitude.
How to change
Gratitude and happiness are very closely linked. If we want to be happy we need to notice our blessings and be grateful for them. But how?
Well, fortunately, there is a simple way to get better at seeing the good things. And it’s surprisingly easy.
Positive psychologist Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that keeping a simple gratitude journal for just three weeks improved people’s levels of overall happiness and productivity, precisely by helping them see the good things that so often become invisible.
And it’s about the easiest thing there is. All you need is a paper and pen, and sixty seconds a day. (A smartphone or computer could work too, if you can’t find a pen and paper.)
Every evening you take one minute to write down three things you are grateful for that day– and they have to be three new things each day. You can’t write the same three things every day. If the first day you are thankful for coffee, chocolate and wine, you have to find three other things to be grateful for the next day. (Such a bummer, I know) They can be events, (I’m grateful my daughter didn’t scream all day) things, (I’m grateful for my new chair that makes my back happier) or states (I’m grateful that I’m married to my amazing husband.)
At the end of three weeks, you will have thought of 63 wonderful things about your life and written them down. It might seem like too small a thing to make much of a difference, but I can tell you from experience that it really does change the way you think about your life. All day long, your brain is remembering that you have to come up with three things to be grateful for. So instead of just looking for the things that don’t fit, or the potential threats, part of you will be looking all day long for good things to notice. It’s a whole new state of mind. And the effects last a lot longer than you would expect. Give it a try! Get a friend (or family member) to do it with you. It might even be fun.
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The classic notebook.
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