Last month I went to Jackson, Wyoming for a family gathering. Every day we hiked up one of the mountains that tower over the town. There’s a point on the trail where you can look out across the valley to the mountain on the other side of Jackson. My eye was drawn to a large gash at the base of the mountain, and I asked my sister, “What’s happening over there?” She replied, “Walgreens.”
|Can you see the gash?|
My brain snapped and crackled as I tried to reconcile the size of the gash with the smallness of the buildings all around, and then I realized that the developers must have been pushing the mountain back to create more room in the valley floor. I felt righteous anger rising in me about this assault on the mountain. Then I realized how crazy that was (what business is it of mine? I don’t even live here. I don’t know the actual circumstances, etc.).
I lifted my eyes, and slowly turning in a circle said, “Katie, take your attention off that tiny little flaw in the landscape and put your attention on the magnificent beauty all around you.” What was all around me was a hillside bursting with spring wildflowers, a sky of beautiful cloudscapes, some people I loved, and the majestic Tetons anchoring it all.
How easy it is to focus on the little problems and miss the larger picture of the magnificent gift that is life.
I thought of this experience while reading Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The authors start their book with the proposition that there is a strong current of pessimism in human thinking, and that this bias makes it difficult to advocate change.
Psychologists have discovered that our brains are wired to look for the flaw in the landscape; we are constantly on alert for any potential problems or dangers that threaten our survival. This is the function of the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala filters incoming sensory information; its job is to look for threats to survival.
It’s easy to imagine how this system evolved—when we lived in the jungle it paid to put most of our attention on the crouching tiger in the foliage and less on the pretty flower by the path.
Psychologists call this the “negativity bias,” and while it may have been useful when we were living on the edge of survival, now, when most of the threats facing us are not life-threatening, it has become debilitating. It is one of the reasons people in our society are so stressed out.
As Diamandis and Kotler write:
Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—the economy might nose-dive, there could be a terrorist attack—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced that it’s living in a state of siege.
The negativity bias also leads to problems in our relationships with people. We tend to focus on what we perceive as defects in another’s personality and miss all the other parts. I’ve started to remind myself, whenever I see a person do something that I don’t like, that people are complex. Everyone is a mix of good and bad. There’s more to that person than the one thing I don’t like.
This bias also affects our attitude towards events in our lives. Oftentimes life doesn’t go as we planned, and while we focus on the “negative”—life not following our script—we’re blind to what’s actually happening. Sometimes this “negative” turns out to be something wonderful, and only later do we recognize that the negative we were focusing on wasn’t negative at all.
My new mantra: Turn your attention. Recognize that my mind is programmed to see the negative, and through that understanding learn to turn my attention to the rest of the reality before me. Don’t let negativity dominate my consciousness.