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.