Shit happens. And it seems to happen quite a lot. Think back to New Years’ and you’ll likely recall quite a few Facebook friends posting how completely shit their year had been and how happy they were to see it end.
I’ve felt that way too. At the end of what I felt was a particularly shit 2017, I was surprised to see that within my sphere of digital contact there were hundreds of people that had also had a shit 2017.
I wondered what was going on in the universe. Was 2017 a year of cosmic shittiness? How could so many people believe strongly that it had been the worst year ever? There had to have been some good things to be happy about, to balance out the shit.
So I went back over my year in my head and purposely searched for good moments, all the moments that had brought me joy, relief, surprise – my wins. Slowly, I realised I had a lot to be grateful for. There had been plenty of moments where I felt happiness, where I had days of relaxation and new experiences, where things had gone my way unexpectedly. They had just slipped away from my memory more quickly than the negative stuff.
The negative had a bigger impact on my mind and certainly had greater staying power. I’d been convinced that the shit had far outweighed the good in 2017. And I was wrong; my brain had tricked me.
This brain trickery is called negativity bias; and, unfortunately, it is a scientifically proven fact that you are more heavily impacted by negative events than an equal number of positive ones. You have caveman brain to thank for that.
Negativity bias evolved to keep us alive in times when we were extremely vulnerable – caveman times. The increased impact of negative experiences made us remember and learn from them. Put your hand in the cave fire and you won’t forget fire’s burn anytime soon. Hunt a wild boar out in the open and you won’t forget the deep gashes tusks can make.
Negativity bias served us well when our environment, and every carnivore and bacteria in it, was hell-bent on killing us.
In the 21st century, our civilisation has advanced to the point where we have far fewer vulnerabilities. We are far more protected and we have accumulated knowledge that means we don’t need negativity bias to survive. Can it still help us to learn? Certainly. Betrayed by someone you decided to trust in spite of a gut feeling not to, and you’ll think twice before ignoring your gut again.
The problem nowadays is that negativity bias makes it especially difficult to remember that your life is actually good.
You won’t die from your trust being betrayed, but you are definitely going to remember that experience more powerfully than the wonderful weekend you spent with friends where you felt happy, loved, and connected. That internet troll’s comment is going to colour your feelings and beliefs more vividly than the stranger’s smile on public transport.
We are hardwired to be more heavily impacted by the negative shit that happens in our lives than the good. That’s why 2017 felt like a particularly crap year; because some more negative things happened than the year before, but I’d neglected to remember some big wins too.
There’s nothing I can do about my caveman brain, but I can focus on finding ways to recall positive experiences. When the end of the year came again, I wanted to have a balanced view of the year, to count my wins alongside my lessons learnt.
The Joy Jar
I saved a used coffee jar and at the beginning of the year, I started writing down on slips of paper every good thing that happened. Every joyful moment, every unexpected positive, every win went into my joy jar. At the end of the year, on New Year’s Eve, I pulled all the slips of paper out of the jar, and reread every one of them. I got to remember all the things that had made my days better; all the things that had made me happy; all the wonderful, sweet, and small things people in my life had done for me; I relived the positive moments of the year.
Shit happens. You’ll still have negative experiences, but you don’t have to let your negativity bias distract you from all the good you’ve had. You’ve had good days; you just need to record them. Then, when you do your happiness balance sheet, your negatives won’t overpower your positives and colour your view of your life.
Start to keep track of your wins. Give the joy jar a try.