One of my jobs is the ghost-writer of autobiographies. People tell me their life histories and I write them in their voice. Over several projects, it became apparent that individuals remember the negative events with considerably more clarity than the positive ones.
For example, I recall vividly falling into a campfire and receiving a third-degree burn on my leg in the summer of ’82, but I cannot tell you what I got for Christmas that year. I can remember every negative comment made by the opposite sex about my looks going all the way back to kindergarten. It’s harder to recall the compliments. This can have a massive effect on a person’s general outlook and self-esteem in life.
Broadly, we can organize interactions in our lives into three categories: Positive, negative and neutral.
Positive = You receive a compliment on your hair.
Negative = You are told by your boss they will not implement your new idea.
Neutral = A barista takes your order.
Research shows that for every one negative experience, it takes a full five to counterbalance it (1). Since our brains are wired with a bias towards negativity, neutral experiences can also become negative. For instance, if someone spends a lot of time planning and cooking a meal for their friend and they do not receive gratitude for the effort (perhaps the friend had a bad day at work or just forgot to say thank you) then the feelings associated are those of indifference and neglect. The friend didn’t say the food sucked, but they said nothing at all and sometimes that is worse. So the neutral becomes negative.
Besides interpersonal interactions, we are also under constant bombardment from the media telling us we aren’t good enough and we all need X product to feel positive. We hear about school shootings and corrupt politicians.
With the Coronavirus pandemic in full swing, we are forced to self-isolate and it seems that there is very little good news in the world. With such overwhelming negativity all around us, what can we do to feel positive or at the very least, balance the polarity?
First, we can try to focus on the good things in our own lives. Try not to allow the neutral become the negative. Accept your flaws and move forward. Try not to let it get to you when someone disregards your own politeness, help or is an outright asshole.
Turn off the news. If you have a pet, play with it. Read a favourite book or watch a film. If you are musician, pick up your instrument. Go for a walk in a wooded area and observe nature. For centuries, the Japanese have called this “forest bathing” but it is only recently western scientists have studied the physical and psychological benefits of spending mindful time in nature.
We can also attempt to help others to create good memories. Be mindful of someone who looks like they might need a kind word, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Utilise the technology and message your friends and family to check up on them.
When this is all over and society returns to normal, if you’re at a restaurant, and the food is good, tell someone. Instead of sitting silent when a co-worker makes a good suggestion, speak the words “good idea.” Compliment your friends on whatever it is they do well and thank them for their efforts, even if they fall short.
Tell your spouse how much you appreciate the way they do that silly, insignificant thing that makes you laugh. It may be the 1st positive thing that this person hears that day. Or it may be the 5th that changes their whole outlook and remembrance of that day or week forever. It’s really not that hard.
We all want our autobiographies filled with good memories. Particularly now. But we can’t do that on entirely on our own.