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.

In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hanging out at Sip yesterday, doing my usual thing: Getting a little writing done, drinking a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself distracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were interesting.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awkward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fingered two business cards I’d pulled from my bag and contemplated next steps. For a few minutes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smiling. Cautious smiles in response. I blathered something about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so interesting that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not surprisingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Impish, a “mischievously playful” Northampton children’s store that I’ve visited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a former business law student of my professor friend Jennifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex marriage campaign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as saying “Always err on the side of generosity.” This encounter got me to thinking how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direction should we risk erring?

Always steering towards human connection strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very practical reasons.

Looking back, I see that, time and again, the choice to connect has enriched my life in many and various ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A couple of recent examples relating to this blog:

After writing about celebrity blogger Penelope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my surprise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely comment, which lifted my spirits on a day that my spirits needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Fluent Self’s magical Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expectation of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s highest traffic-ever day—and, in the process, connected me with a bunch of really wonderful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the person being connected to rather than the connector. The fact that I’m living in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the aforementioned Jennifer (my law school classmate) wrote me a warm congratulatory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Carolyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with foster kids and left a comment on my blog offering to send a copy of Raising Abel, her foster care memoir. As it happened, I’d already heard about the book on Workstew and been meaning to find it. (“A woman of remarkable resourcefulness single-handedly raises a troubled child all the way to manhood in this intimate and inspiring blog-to-book memoir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to connect will yield the hoped-for connections. In another life, when I was writing thrillers, I mustered up my courage, and placed a call to someone I’d been friendly with in college, who sometimes reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Thinking about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excellent example of the human “negativity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson, our brains are “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from getting eaten, not with the goal of assuring that we live happy and pleasant lives. As Hanson sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choosing connection is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human connection, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.