photo by Simson Petrol

“The future, the present and the past walked into a bar. Things got a little tense.”

I heard this ‘joke’ once – a long time ago.  I suspect it arrived during a time when I was involved in groups focused on the psychological impact of growing up in families afflicted with alcoholism; groups that were inclined to take the word “tense” more personally than mere word play.

The joke has hung around in my thoughts without particular reference until yesterday day when I was thinking about this blog and about how our brains were prehistorically hardwired to be on the lookout for the potentially ‘bad stuff’ of life.  This innate scanning capacity enabled us to survive the rigors and dangers of our ancestral circumstances and to evolve with a powerful propensity towards noticing the shadows and dangers of life.  In modern cognitive science the process, which continues in the primary wiring of our brains, is termed a negativity bias

photo by Geran de Klerk

As I have learned, over the years, about our brain’s negativity bias I’ve noted that in self-care and mental health circles it gets a great deal of bad press particularly since multiple findings reveal the degree to which any cognitive bias works to the detriment of our living happier and more peaceful lives.  In the arena of our negativity bias for instance, on balance, it takes from five to ten positive things to arrive in our awareness to equal the same programming impact as does one negative observance – the equivalent, I suspect, of needing to witness 15 minutes of spectacular sunsets five days in a row to offset having watched one hour of nightly news or perhaps the consumption of eight pieces of cake to balance the one frown on our boss’s face that we noticed during a staff meeting. 

It has been a challenge in the last several years for me to feel the sense of control I once felt I had, for me to understand the depth of my concern and uncertainty about things that happen in the world that are so seemingly remote from my personal life, and then yesterday, as I was thinking about this blog and while sitting in a traffic jam, the relevance of the joke – apart from its word play – resonated in my life. I realized that I live in a period of time when the leadership of our country and the culture I am surrounded by has come to feel very much like the family of my childhood, my past, a family like many, where, because of chaos and unpredictability and sometimes violence, anxiety and a hypersensitivity about the present and the future were mechanisms of survival.

Things got a little tense.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much self-awareness you have or therapy you’ve experienced, the sources of feeling that you are being nibbled to death by ducks can often elude you. Until, as happens – as it did to me yesterday – you are stuck in a traffic jam in front of someone with a speaker system that is vibrating your car while you are thinking about happiness and a blog you’re going to write when you get home and the news suddenly interrupts the jazz of Stan Getz. The Girl From Ipanema ending, you are informed that the polar ice caps are melting faster than believed, that eggs are back on the bad-for-you list, and that earth’s insects are becoming rapidly extinct. Not feeling that you’ve had enough, the news-person adds that a shark has been sighted near a beach you are going to in the next week. 

photo by Elijah O’Donnell

The news continued; an unprecedented draught and season of wildfires is expected in the months ahead, the president (love him or hate him) has changed his mind once again about Iran and nuclear war, tweeting that the US is “cocked and loaded,” while dispassionately the reporter adds that WWII tanks are parked and surrounded with firework launchers in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  As I listened to the doom of these reports, the man in the car ahead of me unrolled his window and raised his middle finger to (I supposed) everyone and everything in front of him.  The news ended with a warning that the deteriorating bond market would affect retirement accounts and that thunderstorms were expected for the evening.  With those additional warnings out of the way, the station cut to a commercial that suggested that the pillow I sleep on may be the cause of my lower back pain.

As the man in the car in front of me returned his finger to its holster I suddenly felt that I didn’t know if I was sitting in a traffic jam on my way to the now questionable safety of my own bed or if I was 10 years old again and sitting anxiously with my mother as we waited and wondered if my stepfather would come home and run our car into the garage once again, inform us of his cocked and loaded intent to punch a neighbor, or announce that we were moving.

The traffic begins to inch ahead; the music returns on the radio; an anthem to July is played – “Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald brushes my shoulders, comforts my ears.

 “…til that time there ain’t nothin’ can harm you…so hush little baby…”

photo by Jenna Lee

And, from a car on my left, a little girl smiles and waves at me while a dog in the car’s rear seat turns to the driver in such a way that its huge tail, in tempo to the child’s wave, wags out of the back window. The image of Lincoln trying to look composed while looking down at a stage set with military tanks as the sound of gunpowder rings out begins to fade, the traffic starts to move, and a hand from a car on my right courteously motions me into a turn lane that I had not been able to access. I wave a thank you in return. Once again life as I would hope it might be is not ending.  Ella assures…

“…but til that morning…”

Images of famine, war, pesticides, homelessness, injustice, extinction, dim. The ducks stop nibbling at my soul.  A line from Hamlet pushes encouragement onto the stage of my thoughts, 

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Now I know that really bad and terrible things happen all the time, but I think Shakespeare wasn’t talking about extinction, war, and pesticides.  But rather the everyday, ordinary, stuck-in-traffic and trembling to the vibrations from the speakers in the car behind you kind-of-things.  The things that you can do little about at the moment but which, unless you self-monitor and check yourself, can turn into really dark and self-damaging kinds of thoughts – the kind of thinking that the principles of cognitive behavior therapy addresses.

In short, when we don’t practice a conscious awareness of our thoughts and the life-altering outcomes they produce, situations and experiences can unnecessarily let our emotions pull us in opposite directions.  The thoughts and feelings we practice will then become the thoughts and feelings we are the most skilled at thinking and feeling.  

In the case of our continually hoping that our lives will be happy and peaceful, the more we allow ourselves to identify and practice our feelings about the shadows – the negatives of life – the less happiness we will feel. 

When you combine our evolutionary hard-wiring with the wiring we can develop by growing up in any family or life experience where we had to be on alert for ‘something’, be it alcohol, divorce, unrealistic performance expectations, the loss of someone, abuse, bullying, food insecurity – any real danger – our negativity bias will be heightened.  Our boss’s frown, being tailgated, news of the eventuality of an earthquake, a storm tracker update, a friend’s illness, our dog not eating, few “likes” on a FB post, one of our children seeming preoccupied when we call – everyday events can produce anxiety and preoccupation that overshadows a hundred other positive and potentially wonderful factors we might have encountered but didn’t notice that same day.

Try this. Stop reading at the end of this paragraph for a moment.  Shut your eyes and while taking in a deep breath, ask yourself, “Do I experience wellbeing very often or instead do negative thoughts and outside stimuli often catch my attention?  How many times today have I become aware of something wonderful?  How many negative things have caught my attention?

photo by Dexter Fernandez

The first step in developing the capacity to actually change the wiring of our brain away from its negativity bias is to recognize that we construct our own internal reality and that our experience of the world is in large part, the result of where we decide to put our attentions. 

Because we cannot experience what we don’t notice, a good starting place for change is simple self-awareness.  Over the next few days, pause and become aware of how you are feeling and what thoughts you are tending.  Are they generally thoughts that make you calmer?  Are they thoughts that make you feel more in control and happier or are they thoughts about things and stimuli that have the potential to make you anxious, angry, fearful – pessimistic?  Remember – we become most skilled at those things we practice.  I know people that have cable news on as a background for their life every waking hour.  As people age and begin to feel more vulnerable they watch more news, look for more dangers in their environments.  Some people listen to police channels, weather channels, and news headline alerts in the hours before they try to get a good night’s sleep.  What are they practicing? What are they becoming good at being aware of?

Recognize that there are enormous profits to be made by the delivery of information that feeds the wiring of our negativity bias. There are enormous profits to be made by escalating feelings of stress and fear. Stress and fear sell mattresses, car features, pharmaceuticals, insurance policies, guns, life-alert buttons, burglar alarms, candy with less sugar, whiskey with less alcohol, news station ratings – seats in Congress.  Our negativity bias is constantly on the lookout for a “fix.”  The news, social media, our negative friends and sometimes members of our own families are often the dealers.  But we can, in any one moment, decide that this will no longer be the case.

This is a hard thing to do – this pausing, this stepping back from the shadow makers, this conscious letting go of the impulse to hang out with a need to be on alert, our brain’s preoccupation with scanning our environments for the bad stuff.  This is a hard thing to do – this creation of a space in our lives in order that we might begin to breathe in safety, beauty, and an awareness of the present moment. Pausing, letting go rather than being on alert can often be an unfamiliar or seldom visited experience; an experience in itself that can produce anxiety but an important step towards an increased sense of happiness. 

photo by Pixabay

Again, stop. Pause. Become, for just a moment, a witness of your own life.  How many good things, positive things have you consciously encountered today?  Smile – right now even if it feels artificial at first – and think of one positive thing you’ve noticed or felt today. No – stop – pull the wiring made by a negative thing you experienced today and think instead of five – five positive things that you noticed or felt today;  a little girl waving from a car, the lyrics to a song, the wagging of a dog’s tail out of the window of a car; the hand of a stranger waving you into a turn lane you might have otherwise missed; the feeling of the insight you’ve found in the new meaning of an old quote.  The physical sensation of a smile in the muscles of your face.

When we become willing to pause and let go of the “past” and the “future” and thus allow ourselves the space to be “present” in the moment, we will find the gift of our next breath.

“….and the livin is easy… “

I’ll write some additional thoughts about happiness next month and share a practice that helps me, and I know others, a practice that lifts the spirit and keeps the shadows at bay.  In the present, pick a time of day, set an alarm on your phone, put a note on a mirror, a dot on your hand – a reminder.  Stop. Pause. Feel the safety and the security – and most importantly, the wonder of the next breath you will take.

“…ain’t nothing can harm you…”

photo by Samuel Zeller