Become "A Detective for Good"
Our brains are amazing. In some regards, the human brain is the word's most complex super computer. Even though the average human brain weighs only about three pounds, its functions are vast and innumerable. In the mindfulness and self-care classes I teach, I love to pull out my life-size plastic brain model and talk about the ways in which a sustained mindfulness practice can rewire the brain by making positive, measurable changes in certain brain regions. (If you are interested in this type of stuff, check out the work of Dr. Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist. Her work is fascinating.)
I like to tell my students that our brains are wonderful "devices" for keeping us alive, but they aren't very good at making us happy. From a biological evolutionary perspective, our species has been able to survive due in part to our ability to focus on what we think is lurking right behind the next corner, IE, perceived threats. In our minds, we have a tendency to castastrophize everything that may happen into worst case scenarios. While expecting the worst does not make us happy, it does prepare us to perform when the proverbial *&^# "hits the fan." When we are stressed that something bad might happen to us or someone we care about, our mind takes our body to the "fight, flight, or freeze response." Being wired in this way was helpful to primitive hunting and gathering tribes when running from or fighting an invading tribe or a huge animal. However, it doesn't do much for us in today's modern, sedentary society.
Insuring our survival is just one of various reasons why we focus on the negative over the "good" in our lives. Another reason for this is because our brains are wired towards a negativity bias. This means that even when of equal intensity, things (thoughts, feelings, interactions) of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state than positive things. This affects our behavior, because it makes us give more significance to the negative experiences than the positive ones. As a testament to just how much more impactful negative experiences are to us than positive ones, a study by John Gottman and Robert Levenson suggested that for every negative encounter, there should be at least five positive ones to counterbalance it.
I do a little experiment with my students sometimes to illustrate this type of "good vs bad" thought ratio. I explained this in my book, Slow Your Roll:
If you were to label every single experience in a 24-hour period as either good or bad, I guarantee you that the vast majority of experiences on your list will fall into the bad category.
A sample list:
Waking up (instead of sleeping longer): bad
Fixing your own breakfast: bad
Having to shave and shower: bad
Getting dressed: bad
Driving to work: bad
Having to work: bad
A nice lunch with co-workers: good
Going back to work after lunch: bad
Receiving a text from a loved one: good
Going to the grocery after work: bad
Driving home: bad
Seeing your beloved pet dog when you return home: good
Looking at the list above, it is easy to see how we can fall into this trap in our thinking. Even if you didn’t have as many bads as the person above, I am confident that your bads outnumber your goods if you think in this typical manner.
There is hope, however. The antidote to transform our outlook from positive to negative lies in our ability to cultivate gratitude. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and the children in your life is to begin and maintain a consistent practice of giving gratitude. Doing so can transform our lives by going from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. It is as simple as learning to focus, appreciate, and be thankful for what we have instead of fixating on what we don't have.
Extensive research has been done on gratitude and the numerous benefits it can give us, including: improved sleep, better feelings/happier moods, less fatigue, reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, stronger relationships, and more capacity to deal with adversity. While the practice of gratitude is no quick-fix panacea or cure-all, the good news is that it can lift your spirits and improve your overall enjoyment of life. (If you want to diver deeper on the science behind gratitude, I highly recommend you start by checking out the works of Dr. Rick Hanson.)
Gratitude journaling has become a daily part of my mindfulness practice. Each night, I write down five things that happened that day in which I am grateful about. It does not have to be anything grand like getting a big promotion at work or winning the lottery. My five things can include seemingly insignificant things like: seeing a pretty sunset, meeting a new friend, or hearing an old favorite song on the radio that I have not heard in a long time. Keeping a gratitude journal over time makes you a "detective for good," as you will start to find yourself searching for "good stuff" during the day that you can write down in your journal later that night.
I have found that keeping a gratitude journal has shifted my mindset in a positive manner quite a bit. It enables me to realize that joy can be found in almost anything, no matter how "big" or "small" it may seem, because as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "The little things? The little moments? They aren't little." Keeping this journal reinforces this to me. An individual with an untrained mind spends his or her life looking for the "grand slam moments," essentially missing out, because the majority of our lives unfold in front of us in these so-called "little moments." Sadly we often miss out when we fail to see them.
Keeping a daily gratitude journal or list takes very little time or effort, but it reaps big rewards. I know some families who journal together every night, and once a week they share their "gratitude highlights" with each other. If you have younger children, you can ask them to share their "good news" detective report with you every night after they write it down. Tell them that as a "detective for good" it is their job to remember everything they are grateful about during the day so they can file their report at night. Not only will they have fun doing this, but they will also build up a gratitude practice that will enrich their lives.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com