The world is in chaos. And I don’t think I’m the only one who has noticed.
For the first time decades, society is collectively focused on a singular issue. In a state it has never been in before.
Together, we are fighting an issue that is impacting the lives of every single one of the individuals on this planet to a previously unfathomable degree.
For myself and many of my peers, this year has simply been a blip in our lives.
“Remember 2020 when we couldn’t go to school and were bored all the time? That was a pretty crazy year…”
A year filled with so many memories, none of which remotely compare to anything we had ever experienced. From zoom calls, to the strangeness of seeing friends wearing masks, to an endless supply of time at our hands.
It’s easy to be focused on the struggles I face as a high-school student. I am undoubtedly upset by the fact that I can’t see many of my friends, go to school, having experiences, and making memories that I was looking forward to.
Don’t get me wrong; my feelings are valid. Yet most of my feelings are centered around a desire. A privilege that I had always seen as a given.
But seldom do I acknowledge the perspectives of my neighbors, of those living in my city, of the billions of people around the globe struggling in ways I will never be able to fully understand.
A neighbor down the road, struggling to pay the bills after being laid off.
A mother in a developing country unable to feed her children.
A business owner who can no longer afford to pay rent.
A nurse who has not been able to see her family for three months.
As much as I try to place myself in the shoes of these people, I will never be able to.
I am not struggling to get medical attention, I’m not trying to figure out how to pay my rent, and I am not living my life trying to pay the bills and survive day by day.
I am incredibly privileged; lucky beyond any measure of fate.
So then why do many of us put such a great emphasis on the negative?
Why are we so aware of what we don’t have even as people, our family, our friends, our neighbors, are suffering at the hands of society?
As if humanity falling onto its knees isn’t a big enough excuse to be a little grateful for once.
Well, it might not be entirely in our hands.
Imagine you have traveled 12,000 years back in time. You are a hunter-gatherer, whose role is to collect food for your family. Your lives are dependent on the food that is found; a life of sustenance and survival.
So you have your weapons and you're out there in the wild trying to scavenge food, and you pause, taking a moment to look around. As you turn around, you see an animal; a large, bright-orange, cat-like animal, with an elegant, golden mane.
Its eyes are narrowed to slits, staring you dead in the eye.
“Woah….what a cool animal!” you think to yourself. In your excitement, you walk over to the lion, excited to stroke its mane and greet the bright and interesting creature.
Although that probably isn’t quite what happened. I’m willing to bet that you didn’t fare all too well after that situation.
Had you realized that the lion was a dangerous creature, one that could not be trusted simply by its cat-like features and bright orange fur, you would have fared a much better fate…
Human evolution has caused our brains to value the negative significantly more than the positive, as a result of our survival instinct.
Positive events might give us pleasure, but negative events could equal death.
Obviously, we would prefer not to die rather than experience some sense of pleasure.
Moreover, we are constantly surrounded by events that could be considered positive. Every moment that we are not suffering is a positive one. We tend to be affected much more greatly in the short and long term during trauma, pain, or some misfortune than we are when we are told some good news, get a job promotion, or eat an ice-cream cone.
We remember negative events much more clearly. As neuropsychologist Rich Hanson put it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
But it isn’t just noticeable events that count as positive and negative ones. Every time we breathe, talk, blink, and walk, we are experiencing a positive event.
You might be asking, “We blink over 600,000,000 times throughout our lives….how is that a “positive” event?”
As humans, we don't notice every positive moment we encounter. We aren’t overwhelmed by appreciation, gratitude, and elation every time we blink for several reasons.
Sustainability is part of the reason. If our body was constantly producing dopamine, serotonin, and other endorphins, we would feel overwhelmed beyond anything we have ever experienced. In order for our body to experience a sense of pleasure when something noticeably positive happens, our hormones must be at a baseline.
In other words, your biology will always bring you to a baseline state, a status quo. You could be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but your biological rhythms will bring you to a state where you would feel the same day-to-day as any other person might.
Another aspect of it is that we are not always thinking of the alternative during every positive moment.
It’s easy for us to forget how lucky we are and how much privilege we have. We are very entitled, even on a biological level. On any given day, we complete countless actions, from waking up, to going to school, to going to bed at night. We rarely think about the fact that we get to wake up, get to go to school and get to go to bed at night.
We don’t go to sleep every night thinking “What if I don’t wake up?” Realistically, there is nothing that guarantees that we will wake up the next morning.
Every second, every minute, every hour is a miracle in the countless, immeasurable things that could go wrong and wreak havoc within our bodies, the Earth, and the Universe.
Theoretically, we should be waking up in the mornings jumping for joy that we have lived to experience another day. When we acknowledge the alternative, we have so much more appreciation for the current circumstances.
This applies to everything we do. Whether it be walking, taking a hot shower, or eating a meal, we don’t recognize our privilege until we acknowledge the alternative, or better yet, experience it ourselves.
A single cold shower floods us with an appreciation for the countless hot showers we take daily without a second thought. A single sleepless night immerses us in appreciation for our next slumber. Not being able to eat for days gives us immense gratitude for each meal we eat thereafter; now seen as a luxury, not a right.
By just be thinking of the alternative, we can maximize our gratitude and appreciation for what we have. Experiences bring on a level of understanding and a sense of gratitude that goes beyond acknowledgment. But of course, many of us will likely not experience what it is like to live in a developing country, be homeless, or get lose a limb.
After taking cold showers for a week, I was, and still am, filled with a sense of gratitude and comfort for every warm shower I take. While it does not compare to the millions of people around the world who don’t have the privilege to make that choice, we can train ourselves to value what we have so much more by making that choice, although it might be a short-term one.
It most definitely doesn’t sound ideal to walk somewhere you can easily drive, take a cold shower, or eat the same food every day for a week, we train the sense of gratitude and appreciation we feel to increase, resulting in a happier life.
When doing the opposite of what you naturally want to do, your mind automatically trains you to be more attentive to the action that is being performed. When you want to eat a bar of chocolate, but reach for the grapes instead, your mind is automatically more alert.
However, hardship alone won’t get you there. When trying to build a habit of positivity and appreciation, we must be intentional.
Only when we are intentional do we reap the benefits of the action that is being executed.
None of us feel good when we hear about the people who have lost their jobs, the doctors who haven’t been able to see their families, the mothers, and fathers that are struggling to feed their children.
We block it out of our heads; it’s the only way that we can guard ourselves against the information. It’s the only way we can maintain a sense of peace and comfort in what we have. A way we can cope with the intensity of the information we are being fed.
Blocking this information out allows us to function at our optimal state. The blockade is a survival instinct; one that allows our species to function and thrive in a world that throws obstacle after obstacle at humanity, some of which are brought about by humanity itself.
Yet blocking this information out also leads to desire. A desire for more money, more clothes, more time. We think that these wants will make our lives better; a way to achieve happiness.
But the process of desire itself puts us in a lower state of happiness. Before you realized you wanted a new iPhone, you were perfectly fine. Yet as soon as you acknowledged that want, you think in terms of your happiness increasing only if we had that item.
Being intentional about appreciating what we have instead of falling prey to our desires is a difficult thing to do. There is no end. You can never completely eliminate desire, nor can you be so focused on the appreciation of what you have that you lose your sense of self-awareness.
Training yourself to appreciate what you have, rather than what you don’t have, takes time. We are often too busy staring up at the stars to see the ground we are standing on. However, acknowledging the conditions of others across the planet is part of the process.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Gratitude is not just about what we say, but about how we live. It is easy to say you are grateful for the millions of doctors around the world battling COVID-19, working to save millions of people. But are you really grateful? What are you doing to express your gratitude? Do the words you say, the intentions behind your actions, and the manner in which you live align with the gratitude you feel?
This goes for every aspect of your life. Saying you are grateful is one thing. But showing your appreciation to yourself, your family, and to others is another.
Life is not just about fulfilling the potential we have. Overcoming the negativity bias in order to achieve personal success is beneficial by all means. But the greatest satisfaction and happiness we experience comes when we experience gratitude, and in turn, express it in some form to others.
Personal success does not mean anything if we don’t use our influence to benefit society in some manner.
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