“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort” – Herm Albright
Did you know that even though your brain is an impressive configuration of squillions of neurons it’s not actually all that good at thinking?
As an empirical processor of ideas and concepts it works on the basis of rules of thumb and generalizations that don’t necessarily make much sense (eg. Someone who voted for Margret Thatcher because of the “nice hats” she wore). Not only are our thoughts prone to certain ‘cognitive’ errors but the way we think is also fundamentally limited.
When we think about something we are unable to think about something else at the same time. Thought processes tend to be mutually exclusive – if you are thinking about that horrible report you have to finish by tomorrow then you’re not thinking about the presentation you have to give next week. You might flick between the two but the effect is like switching between BBC World New and Eurosport on the telly; comparatively easy to do but the overall result is unsatisfactory. Furthermore the act of switching requires effort and if you’re brain is already rather tired from a hard day’s work then things can start to go a bit fuzzy. This explains why you forget your dentist appointment or forget to pick up your kids from school: you were thinking about something else – it’s as simple as that.
But it is one thing to consider what you’re thinking about and another to consider how we decide what to think about in the first place.
Sometimes there are important concepts that simply do not cross our mind – “It never occurred to me!” And then there are ‘obsessions’ – thoughts that keep coming back to us again and again whether we want them or not.
Your brain doesn’t want you thinking about everything. It’s not an efficient use of energy and you’d probably start going a bit mad. Your brain is actually very good at taking a familiar thought process (like driving, typing or tying your shoelace) and embedding it into your subconscious areas (such as the basal ganglia) so it doesn’t interfere with more important things. But it is also reluctant to consider things that are familiar to us regardless of how important they are. We call it taking something for granted.
Unfortunately you have inherited a brain that has learned that one tends to survive for longer if you pay attention to the bad stuff (problems, worries, tigers etc.). Once you’ve dealt with one problem then it’s off to find another. Your brain simply isn’t naturally interested in the obvious and the familiar – its default setting is to look for something that is causing you a problem and deal with it.
This results in a curious paradox.
We spend much of our conscious thought energy trying to deal with problems so that we can have a better life and be happy. But the result is that we actually spend far more time than is necessary focussing on negative thoughts which can only lead to more worry, stress and discomfort than is good for you.
Consider the poor soul who spends his time at work worrying about how to get the most from his summer holiday but once on holiday, sizzling slowly on the beach, he starts to worry about all the work that will be waiting for him when he gets back to work.
It’s as if we choose to be miserable.
I call it going over to the ‘Dark Side’.
The Dark Side is very real. At its centre lies serious depression: a hollow joyless emptiness of despondency, apathy and gloom. At its periphery are the lesser evils of ‘Worry’, ‘Sadness’ and ‘Frustration’.
The Dark Side is like a vortex – a vicious circle. Once you slip in it can suck you to the centre from where it can be difficult to escape. This is closer to the truth than you might imagine.
Your brain in a ‘normal’ state produces neurotransmitters like dopamine that make you feel good. And because you feel good you tend to do positive things (like socialise, be physically active, laugh etc) which in turn make you think more positively which in turn produces more dopamine, which makes you feel good… etc.
The converse is also true. If we are unhappy, stressed or sad our brain doesn’t produce these neurotransmitters which in turn makes us less likely to do positive things, have positive thoughts and so makes us even unhappier.
So what’s the solution? Spend all day fantasizing about your secretary, boss or favourite celebrity? Well – yes and no. The immediate results could be favourable with increased production of dopamine, oxitocin and endorfins but in the long term could result in undesirable feelings relating to obsessive behaviour with associated feelings of frustration, rejection and a negative self image. So, not a good idea really.
A far healthier option was practiced, if not invented, by the Catholics in the middle ages. In those days it seemed that the whole point of life was to suffer. The more you suffered the better your prospects of getting through those Pearly Gates (if you didn’t have to money to buy your way in) And indeed life was pretty grim what with the plagues, drought and a total absence of toilet paper.
To make it all a bit more bearable someone came up with the idea of counting one’s blessings. Even if you did have a fascinating skin disorder, had gone 3 days without much to drink and suffered chronic diarrhoea, you could still be grateful for having the eyesight to see your skin, for it being yet another lovely sunny day and that you still had the strength in your legs to get to the privy before it was too late.
This may sound like a huge con but science shows us that actually it really does work.
Most likely you have many things going for you right now but without a bit of prompting your consciousness won’t give them a second thought.
Consider your hands for example. Look at them. They’re pretty cool, aren’t they? An amazing example of biological engineering, they can do a whole range of actions from giving a gentle caress to lifting heavy weights, from finely playing the guitar to smacking someone in the face.
If you had an accident and lost the use of both your hands you would most likely be rather upset about it. You would probably give your life savings to any super surgeon that could get the use of them back for you. And if that were possible then once you were sitting up in your hospital bed with your new working hands (minus your savings) you’d probably be overjoyed. But as you have them already then you don’t give them a second thought. You don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. And this is true of so much.
If you’re reading this then you are literate (about a quarter of the world’s population isn’t)
You can see (285 million people are visually impaired)
You have a computer (about 70% of the world’s homes don’t, 20% of the population don’t even have homes)
You have access to internet (about 55% of the world don’t).
You can most likely leave your home in relative safety (there are no snipers or landmines)
You turn on the tap and water comes out.
You go to the shop and it’s full of things to buy.
You are free to go out at night and travel where you wish.
You can socialise with who you want.
You can practice the kind of sex you want.
You can practice the religion you want or say, without fear of persecution, that you follow no religion.
If you didn’t have these basic rights how would you feel?
As Phil Collins sang ‘Oh think twice, ’cause it’s another day for you and me in paradise…’ and you’d better start believing it.
So, if you’d like to feel a bit happier try this: for just one week count your ‘blessings’: the things that are going right for you at the moment.
Find ten minutes in your schedule when you can reflect on your life’s ‘blessings’ and note each one down. How many can you think of? Don’t repeat. Each day think of some different ones. Consider your job, your health, your family, your environment and so on and start to recognise everything that is positive, everything that you could appreciate a bit more.
Each one you identify should produce a small batch of neurotransmitters that will make you feel better and while you’re thinking of the positive then you’re not thinking of that horrible report you have to finish by tomorrow… bother, now I’ve reminded you of something negative and spoiled it.
You get the idea anyway, don’t you?