I once heard a story about a woman who met with the Dalai Lama and confided that she was deeply sad about not having children. He listened intently then gently responded: “All the time?”
This exchange came back to me in recent days as I continue to navigate one of my tougher stretches in Plan B Nation. The challenge of finding a new home, an unsettled work life, summer heat – such things have me swamped in discouragement, uncertainty, and stress.
That’s why I’ve been re-upping my efforts to Take in the Good – to bring a focused attention to all that is going right. This is a very different thing from denying life’s very real problems. The lemons are definitely still there. But so is the lemonade.
A few nights back, I visited a local swimming hole with my friend Becky, after which we headed off for dinner at Ashfield’s Country Pie. I’d been hearing about this place for ages and was eager to try the pizza, but the hour-plus wait time quickly changed our plans. Grinders would be just 20 minutes. We opted for those instead. From a stash of games, I picked up a Chinese checkers board. Once we figured out how to play, we whiled away the time while waiting, and I now remember that interlude as the best part of the evening.
This morning, I once again felt the weight of the world descending, so I jumped in my car and made my way to the dreamy Montague Bookmill. That’s where I am right now, camped out at the Lady Killigrew Cafe with a bagel and coffee, listening to the rushing water below from my corner window seat. Yes, there are things in my life that are hard, but this is also true.
There’s a reason to think this way. Focusing on the good things in life is a first-step towards correcting for the brain’s “negativity bias,” which causes us to react more strongly to a negative stimulus than to an equally strong positive one, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing. While this bias had its evolutionary uses – it kept our ancestors from getting eaten – it also explains why we so often make ourselves needlessly unhappy by endlessly replaying our fears and failures and disregarding successes.
The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones, is how Hanson puts it. That’s why it’s so important to do our best to take in the good things that happen. “By tilting toward the good – toward that which brings more happiness and benefit to oneself and others – you merely level the playing field,” Hanson writes in Just One Thing, which includes 52 practices for enhancing well-being by changing the brain. (There’s a name for this: “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”)
Lately, I’ve been returning to the popular Three Good Things practice – taking time at the end of each day to write down three positive experiences from the past 24 hours. Over the years that I’ve played with this exercise, I’ve had mixed results. There are times it’s left me cold and seemed like a waste of time. But these days, it feels helpful so I’m sticking with it for now. That’s the great thing about a toolkit. It gives you choices.
When I started this blog, I was committed to being honest and authentic, but the more I look at my experience, the harder it is to grasp. Within a single experience, there are many truths: Yes, life is hard right now — but not all the time.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.