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.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

18 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!

    • Thanks, Corie! And I agree — 3 good things seems to help sometimes, not others. I feel lucky that it’s wo
      rking for me right now, as it’s particularly needed. :-)

  2. Amy I love this piece–we are really thinking along the same lines. I reflected on being open to the possibility that good things might happen (gasp!) in a sermon on faith I recently delivered at our local Unitarian Society. Hope to see you soon.

    • Thank you, Lynne Marie — and I so wish I’d heard you speak!!! Do let me know if there’s another opportunity.

  3. 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.

    • I love that ritual — yet another reason to think it would be great to be Jewish. I will mull over how to adapt it to my own life.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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! :-)

    • And — as I told you a few minutes ago — hearing that I wrote what you needed to hear was just what *I* needed to hear! :-)

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