In the last post, Warning: You Are Missing Out, I talked about the negativity bias, and how seeing the good parts of our lives goes against our natural tendency to look for problems. So how do we shift our perspective to recognize what’s going well? I have a few ideas, starting with the basics and moving toward the master level.
- Begin with the Basics. Go to bed at a decent hour. Raise your heart rate daily. Don’t let yourself get too hungry, and feed yourself with tasty, nourishing foods. Science backs this up, that these factors play a big role in our happiness. Caring for yourself can feed you in the places where you feel deficient. And when the body is happy, the mind tends to follow
- Practice Gratitude. One way to do this is by keeping a journal and writing down a few things each night for which you’re grateful. Many people have done research on gratitude over the past 20 years, and they find that when a person writes down a few things they’re grateful for in the evening before bed, we see this person over just a few days become happier and more satisfied with their lives. This practice is simple and effective.
- Enjoy the Fun of Failure. People who do new things are happier than those who merely stick with what they do best. Challenge and novelty stimulate our brains with surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation leads to powerful sense of satisfaction. Learn a language with others, travel to a place you’ve never seen, take up a new hobby.
- Write a letter. I read that Mark Zuckerberg writes a thank you note every single morning. “It’s important for me, because I’m a really critical person,” he told Business Insider. This helps him to see a more “objective truth,” that his projects and relationships are actually doing very well, and he has a lot to be grateful for. Letting others know how they have impacted you is a gift, not just for the sake of saying thank you, but by reminding others and ourselves that our actions have ripple effects. We send out influential ripples into the world all the time, and too often we never get a chance to express their effects. Irvin Yalom, in his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death, he emphasizes that whenever possible these letters should be hand delivered and read to the person. This is a powerful exercise, and allows us to also see the impact of reading these words aloud.
Gratitude researchers Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai discussed some of these practices during their interview on Freakonomics. “When people [practice gratitude], they sleep better. They go to the doctor less often. They also show less depressive symptoms.” The positive effects of gratitude are amazing. These small acts help us notice the invisible forces in our lives that have helped us along. Yes, we’re grateful for friends and family and health, but what about the more subtle blessings? Opportunity for education, ability to speak freely, even the chance to be alive.
I’ll wrap up with a story by Louis C.K. (here’s the clip from Conan O’Brien’s show): “I was on an airplane and there was internet, high-speed internet on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, ‘Open up your laptop, you can go on the internet.’ And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips. I’m on an airplane. Then it breaks down and they apologize. The internet’s not working. The guy next to me goes, ‘This is bullshit.’ Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”