At some point or another, we all get caught in the future trap. “If I could just earn X, or achieve Y, I’ll be happy.”
We all know that superficial things (money, status, power) give fleeting, temporary happiness. Yet, I believed that once I achieved the “real deal” (good friends, a sense of community, job satisfaction), I’d experience a lasting increase in happiness.
This was put to the test in 2013. After finding a more fulfilling job, moving to a new city, meeting many wonderful people, and knocking off quite a few items on my bucket list, I expected to feel noticeably happier as I went about my day-to-day life.
That never happened.
Why? Because of a mental quirk that Rick Hanson – neuropsychologist and member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board – describes in this interview with The Atlantic:
The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.
When you don’t actively pay attention to the good, your negative memories are in a position to triumph. Over and over and over.
I’m sure this differs from person to person, but I’m quite susceptible to the negativity bias Hanson describes. It’s almost as if I have a leak in my positive memory tank. I’ll remember a negative experience for years, but forget a positive experience within a week, often resulting in a prolonged sense of anxiety and gloom. Can you relate?
In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson talks about this trend in excruciating detail. From his years of research, he’s come to the conclusion that going out of your way to be just as attentive to the positive as the negative can physically re-wire your brain to better hold on to the good. This has a range of benefits, including improved health and emotional well-being.
Techniques for being more mindful of the good in your life have been around forever. Meditation, gratitude journals, mindfulness practices, and more. Apps like Headspace and Calm make it easier than ever to develop a mindfulness practice. Journals like the Five Minute Journal encourage gratitude and positive reflection.
I’ll keep this post brief, with the following takeaway: If you’re like me, and find yourself with a significant negativity bias, do yourself a favor and start working on that this week (yes, this week). Whether by reading Hanson’s book, meditating more often, or starting a gratitude journal, pick your methodology and get to it.
With enough practice, you’ll upgrade your happiness in ways others could never think of doing.