As you know, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Even as I write these words, millions are dying of malnutrition and disease. Entire countries flirt with economic collapse. Wars rage all over the globe—which, by the way, looks to be approaching total system failure as natural ecosystems disappear. Meanwhile, I’m watching a YouTube video of a fuzzy little dog—a cross between a schnauzer and a poodle, called a schnoodle—who likes to sing and play the piano. And I am delighted.
There was a time when I thought such small-scale enjoyment, in a world so filled with suffering, was a crime in itself. It was hard to take a bite of my overabundant food, hug my healthy children, or drive one fossil-fueled mile without pangs of guilt. The only moral thing to do, I believed, was to sustain an attentive misery, honoring the pain and danger in this world. But over the years, as I’ve seen what leads to positive change and what doesn’t, I’ve become a sort of joy hound. I now agree with the poet Jack Gilbert: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” This isn’t narcissistic pleasure-seeking. It’s the way to make your own life work and give your best to the world.
Storms of Negativity
Almost every creature comes into being wired for negativity. Why? Survival logic. Say you’re wandering through the woods and you fail to notice the pretty wildflowers under your feet. Regrettable, perhaps, but not catastrophic. Now imagine that the thing under your feet is a rattlesnake. Fail to notice this, and it’s good night, Gracie. Which is why we give the bad things in our lives so much more attention than the good ones—a phenomenon known as a negativity bias.
This bias functions in relationships as well as wilderness encounters. You probably pay far more attention to one person who insults you than ten who tell you, “Have a nice day!” Your focus goes to the one negative comment on your Facebook page, the one cutting criticism from your boss, the one explosive curse from your teenager. To maintain a successful marriage, according to research by psychologist John Gottman, PhD, husbands and wives must offer each other at least five acts of love and kindness to balance each single act of spite or selfishness. You may walk around carrying negative incidents like daggers in your heart, ignoring the thousands of positive things that happen to you every day.
Think back to a time when you were in this state, limping psychologically in the wake of an insult, an argument, a criticism. Notice how your body tenses. Close your eyes and see yourself interacting with others, how you pull inward, turn away, scowl. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people around you—whose hearts carry their own daggers—interpreted your shut-down communication style as anger or disapproval. And it wouldn’t be surprising if this led to a vicious cycle.
When we’re scared, we’re scary, so at your most fearful, you probably frighten the people around you. They, in turn, react aggressively from their own fear, scaring you into more anxious behavior, escalating their fear, etc. All your negative emotions can reproduce themselves this way, until your negativity bias has created a life filled with chaos and discontent. Billions of people are doing this right now, fomenting little tornadoes of pain that swell with every reciprocal negative interaction.
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath write about making positive differences in difficult situations involving residents of an impoverished Vietnam village, a learning-disabled student, and couples working to improve their troubled relationships. One powerful strategy, the Heaths write, is to stubbornly focus on bright spots.
In social work, this is called the “strengths perspective”—finding sources of success and empowerment to fuel change. For example, aid workers in Vietnam helped alleviate malnutrition by learning from women whose children were unusually healthy (turns out these women were feeding their children more varied food, more often). Educators help learning-disabled students by focusing everyone’s attention on areas where the students are already excelling. In my coaching, I’ve seen couples begin to heal their relationships almost from the moment they start noticing and praising each other’s virtues instead of harping on each other’s failures.
You can feel the power of the strengths perspective if you’re trying to drop a bad habit like smoking or eating entire pots of fondue cheese. Right now, think of times when you’ve indulged this habit. Berate yourself for being weak and wrong. Notice: In that mind-set, do you feel less like repeating your bad habit, or more? Now focus on bright spots—times when you did something right. You resisted a craving, ate well, worked out, whatever. List five of these bright spots, no matter how small:
While focusing on your successes, do you feel more or less able to resist your bad habit? If you don’t feel more empowered, list five more bright spots. Your negativity bias will fight back (“No! I’m a loser! I’m a fat smoking cow!”), but if you stubbornly persist until you begin to feel gladness, you’ll get stronger.
But, you may object, while positive thinking about bad habits is all very well and good, there’s pain in this world that doesn’t simply vanish when we slap on rose-colored glasses. Stubborn gladness be damned—attentively focusing on problems, in our own lives and in the world, is necessary if we ever hope to improve things.
I agree with this argument, I really do, but only for about a minute and a half. You see, I learned from Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, a neuroscientist who rebuilt her brain after suffering a stroke, to approach emotional suffering with the so-called 90-second rule. Physiologically, Taylor says, it takes only 90 seconds of feeling the emotion caused by a negative event before the body finishes processing its stress hormones and returns to its baseline setting. “Unless you rerun that loop by rethinking the thoughts that restimulate the emotion that restimulates the physiological response,” Taylor has explained, “the uncomfortable feelings will go away.”
I watched this principle in action not long ago, when my son’s best friend was orphaned. Joey has Down syndrome, so his life was no cakewalk to begin with. At the age of 15, he had lost his beloved stepfather to cancer. Then, when he was 22, his mother died of the same disease. I sat beside Joey at his mother’s funeral, where he seemed relatively okay—until the music started. As the first mournful notes sounded, Joey began crying like a wounded animal. I’d never seen or heard so much grief explode from one person. I grabbed Joey and held him tight while the storm of sorrow ripped through him…for 90 seconds.
Then, because Joey was totally nonresistant, the storm stopped. He went limp in my arms, drawing deep breaths. A moment later, he was good-naturedly heckling a speaker, laughing so easily and happily that everyone else at the funeral felt a bright spot of joy. A few minutes later, Joey had another 90-second spasm of pure agony. Riding out these waves with him was like helping a woman give birth. His response to the grief was pure, clean, and powerful.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by a terrible situation, check your watch and emulate Joey. Dive in for 90 seconds. Don’t think, just feel. Cry. Rant. Scream into a pillow. If you don’t hold the sadness in your mind with obsessive thinking, it will be over very soon—at which point you can focus again on bright spots.
Letting Your Gladness Change the World
To stubbornly accept gladness, we must stop believing that we can be sad enough to make a sad person happy. At dinner after Joey’s mother died, people offered funeral food with doleful commiseration. But giving with sorrow is less helpful than giving from a sense of joy.
Here’s a simple formula to guide you in the ruthless furnace of this world: When you’re weary, find relief. When you’re strong, find delight. Challenge yourself to follow this instruction now. If you’re having a bad day, find relief: a friend, a nap, time to cry. It doesn’t have to make you feel good, just better. But if today is already pretty good, seek something truly delightful. A ripe peach could work, or a chat with your 5-year-old niece, or your favorite song. As Gilbert says, “We must admit there will be music despite everything.” Or as Pablo Neruda wrote,
Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.
…it opens for me all
the doors of life.
The more you defy your innate negativity bias, building from your strengths, finding relief, and embracing delight wherever you can, the more you become a walking cyclone of peace. The repercussions of one person living in stubborn acceptance of gladness are incalculably positive. Become that person, and you’ll find that in spite of everything, there is music. It won’t necessarily be a choir of angels. A schnoodle will do. Go to your computer, google “dog sings and plays piano,” and see what I mean. As you watch that dog howling his heart out, you may find laughter rising in you, bringing peace, optimism, and joy, opening for you all the doors of life.
Here’s the original Martha Beck article on Oprah.com.