All the time?

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.

20 thoughts on “All the time?

  1. That’s a won­der­ful story, and a great ques­tion for me to try to remem­ber when I’m thrown by some­thing.
    I’m on again, off again about three good things. Some days I think I’m doing pretty well when I can come up with one good thing. But that’s at least one!
    Corie Weaver recently posted…Explorer’s Log #6:My Profile

  2. I should add that my hus­band has a pre-candlelighting shab­bat rit­ual where we have to men­tion the things that week we are grate­ful for. I think he is really onto some­thing.
    Lisa recently posted…Walk, Mem­oryMy Profile

  3. So true. The trick is to be able to switch from one per­spec­tive to the other. It’s hard to get your mind away from stress-inducing thoughts or out of a deep funk, but once you do, its easy to focus on the pos­i­tive. Every­one needs to find their own ways to switch gears.
    Lisa recently posted…Walk, Mem­oryMy Profile

    • The idea that every­one needs to find their own way is so true in my expe­ri­ence — in years past, I spent way too much time try­ing to do things that worked for other peo­ple but didn’t work for me. These days I’m much bet­ter about fol­low­ing the 12-step slo­gan: Take what you can use & leave the rest.
      amy gut­man recently posted…All the time?My Profile

  4. Very help­ful descrip­tion of brain re-training. I was blam­ing myself for hav­ing a neg­a­tive brain bias and now I learn that’s actu­ally how we are made. And “just as I am” is all right. We just need to see the real­ity and take the next most thought­ful step. Thanks for the inspi­ra­tion!
    Alle­gra Jor­dan recently posted…A 750 year-old decision-making checklistMy Profile

  5. That’s a won­der­ful photo of the Book­mill! Iconic. I rec­og­nized it instantly. Even if I didn’t know and love the Book­mill, I would rec­og­nize the ambiance — and fall in love instantly.

    Yes, a good place to be.

  6. I, too, have had mixed expe­ri­ence with the ‘3 Good Things’ exer­cise. I won­der if at times it is just that the negative’s vel­cro hold makes it so dif­fi­cult to even see the good things, that the items I write down seem hol­low. Or maybe it is because I want it to be imme­di­ately uplift­ing, coun­ter­act­ing the neg­a­tive effects that I grow impa­tient with it, want­ing all that detri­tus that gets caught up in the vel­cro to dis­ap­pear at once. All the more rea­son to fol­low Hansen’s advice to tilt towards the good.

    Wish­ing you good luck with your house hunt­ing. Your cor­ner win­dow seat sounds lovely and just what you needed today.
    Anne Camille recently posted…Weekly Photo Chal­lenge: MovementMy Profile

    • Thank you so much, Anne! And yes, the Book­mill was a lovely (and pro­duc­tive) inter­lude. I’ve never quite fig­ured out why the 3 good things prac­tice is more effec­tive for me some times than it is at oth­ers, but I guess I don’t really need to under­stand it to use it when it works.
      amy gut­man recently posted…All the time?My Profile

  7. My sis­ter appears to me to be Teflon for both neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences. I have over the years found this very annoy­ing, as she claims that “everything’s fine” even when her life has been filled with many (often self-inflicted) dis­as­ters. This post reminded me of what I have come to appre­ci­ate about her take on life, and where it dif­fers from mine. She doesn’t let setbacks–major or minor–eat at her. She can turn on a dime and move for­ward. She doesn’t always own up to the cau­sa­tion, but she is almost never stymied. For those of us, like me, for whom this does not come nat­u­rally, your post, as always, is a refresh­ing reminder of how to seek out the “many truths.”

    By the way, the Book­mill sounds like a lovely place. I could use a place like that once in a while.

    • That’s inter­est­ing, Matthew. It seems to me that tem­pera­ment gen­er­ally plays a role in these things. In Just One Thing, Rick Han­son actu­ally has a prac­tice called Honor Your Tem­pera­ment, where he talks about the impor­tance of hav­ing a good fit between our envi­ron­ments and our hard-wired, innate char­ac­ter­is­tics. Some of us def­i­nitely have a harder time rid­ing out ups and downs — & that’s okay! :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…All the time?My Profile

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