Having a good meal, talking to close friend, or just being able to enjoy a sunny day, all of those experiences are arguably small in their individual impact on our lives. I will make the case that these “small” pleasures are still important to pay attention to. Not because they are small or because they make us feel good. I want to talk about the act itself. To enjoy positive experiences, however small. Acknowledging them, and actively appreciating them.
I want to talk about the science of how doing this builds up our inner strengths.
My inspiration for this topic comes from Dr. Rick Hanson. He’s a neuropsychologist from the Wright Institute, and he gave this Ted Talk a few years ago about how are brains are able to turn passing mental states into lasting neural traits:
The gist of it:
Our brains are biased towards negativity.
(This is normal)
You accidentally drop your phone and scratch the screen admist what is otherwise a flawless day. What will you most recall that night? The progress you’ve made towards your goals, the excellent peer reviews you’ve gotten for your work, the kind words you’ve received from friends, the good weather, fluid traffic, the good living conditions you enjoy?
Will you be obcessing over how terrible it is that the screen has a scratch on it now, and how easily it could have been avoided..
When humans lived under harsh conditions in the African savanna, this type of thinking made sense. You fail to appreciate the warm hut you live in, how friendly your tribes people are, and how much better you’ve gotten at hunting and gathering? That’s fine. You can still reap the benefits of having such an attitude do that tomorrow.
However, should you fail to notice even only once that the figure in that tree over there is not a huge bird but rather a dangerous predator.. now that could mean game over for you.
This is how scientists explain why we tend to pay more attention to things that go wrong.
This tendency is known as “negativity bias”.
I like how this one essay puts it.
If I said I had some very good news and some very bad news for you. Which would you like to hear first?
If you would like to hear the bad news first, you’ve answered like most people would. And again this is perfectly normal. However, this increased sensitivity for negatives makes us vulberable to social anxiety, depression, and a bunch of other neuroses.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, and to some extent in his talk, Dr. Rick Hanson talks about developping inner strengths:
- Secure attachment
- Emotional intelligence
- Learned optimism
- The relaxation response
- Distress tolerance
- Executive functions
Now, what do those “inner strengths” have to do with being able to enjoy little things?
When you give yourself time to enjoy anything, your brain starts re-shaping itself to become more sensitive to it.
You’ve certainly heard of this neuro-adaptive process, it’s neuroplasticity.
Thoughts you repeatedly have become your mindset.
Activities you repeatedly engage in become your habits.
Neurons that fire together wire together.
That’s just the way our brains work. So if you make it a habit to “take in the good” as Dr Hanson says, you essentially become (through conditionning) someone who’s happier and more resistant to the effects of negative experiences.
You’re able to get very high, and you never get too low.
So what does this mean for you, for myself, and our daily lives?
It means we have an opportunity.
In fact many small opportunities, every single day, to stregthen our minds.
The thing about daily life is that it’s a grind. It’s a marathon. You’re trying to go somewhere but to road is rocky and winding. Good things happen along your way but disasters occur as well. Only those tough enough stick it through to the end, and only the tough-est do it and get what they want from this journey.
This whole iniative for me is about inspiring people to get moving. Inspiring people to start something.
I mean maybe some of you guys got something you never finished, something you really wanna do, something you never said to somebody — somethin’! — and you’re told “No,” even after you pay your dues? Who’s got the right to tell you that? -Rocky Balboa (2006)
But even when I got this impulse to start something, and I started writing, I immediatly was confronted with the fact that if I was going to write on those subjects that interested in me, and be the kind of inspirationt that I really wanted to be, I knew when I started that I was going to have to be different.
Not different than other people doing something similar. Different then who I was at the time. People change, life is an iterative process, and I knew I wanted to be better.
But not just for the sake of being a better person.
That in itself is great, but I wasn’t motivated to improve before right? So what happened.
Well, life happened. Like I said:
Life is an iterative process. You try stuff, observe results and adjust.
What happened is I realized I wasn’t in a place that I wanted to be. And every day I’m thankful that I was able to look at myself instead of pointing fingers at other people.
Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you! -Rocky Balboa (2006)
And if you can change yourself, and do something different, then you can have something different. Do something better, get something better.
When it comes to appreciating the little things in life, the rewards are in your brain.
- A tendency to soak up happy exeperiences
- Resilience against negative ones
- Building you inner stregths
Slowly but surely, one experience at a time. So that’s one small lifestyle tweak I would recommend to anyone. Check out last weeks article: Why Making Lifestyle Changes is So Hard to learn how to not fail at making changes in your life.
Hopefully this was somewhat enlightning and/or thought provoking. 🙂
I’ll be back next week with more. In the meantime:
Interested in learning more?
Check out Dr Rick Hanson’s book:
Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson.
A good bedside book to cultivate your mind and learn something about how the brain works.