By Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
For many of us, our relationship to happiness has changed over the past year and a half. Many of the things that we once turned to to bring us joy were unavailable. For some, that led to increased anxiety and depression. However, this was not the case for everyone. While almost all of us had expected and understandable moments of sadness, grief, and frustration, many were able to respond to these moments by turning their focus to what they still had, what small joys remained. The simple act of saying thank you for those small, but important aspects of life can be a lifesaver in a storm. Teaching our children from a young age to look for joy and acknowledge it regularly can help build resilience that helps them overcome difficulties for the rest of their lives.
Overcoming Our Bias to Negativity
During times of crisis, we often fall into worst case scenario thinking, seeing the negative aspects of our life in technicolor while the positive things fade into a black and white background. This is a natural defense our brain has called negativity bias, and the result is that we remember the bad things that happen to us more strongly than we remember the bad. Once upon a time, this was an important survival instinct so we didn’t eat that berry that upset our stomach a second time. But in this modern life where we get our food from the grocery store and not the wild, our memories are not always the best judges of reality. Research actually shows that three times as many positive experiences occur in our daily lives for every negative experience we have. It’s our job to train our brains to notice those positive experiences to overcome the negativity bias.
Fred Rogers’s—better known as Mr. Rogers—mother taught him as a youngster to “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” when a crisis occurs. This simple piece of advice, in part, helped Mr. Rogers become the icon of compassion he is by changing the lens through which he viewed the world. Though it takes practice, no matter how strong our bias towards negativity, we can retrain our brains and teach our children from an early age to train their brains to seek the positive whatever is happening.
Seeking Out Joy
One of the first steps in finding the joy that is already abundant in your life is to get better at noticing in general. Coming into the present moment can be easier when we have fewer anxieties and worries on our minds, so try some intentional breathing or meditation in the morning to find that peaceful state of mind that will make it easier for you to focus on your joy-finding mission. Next, begin to name the things that you see around you. Describe their color, shape, sound, feel. It will become hard to deny that there are many things in your life that bring you joy.
Go beyond noticing these positive things in your life and express your gratitude. Very few things that bring us joy are things we created in isolation. Many of our most treasured possessions, relationships, and places of gathering are the result of a group effort. Thank the people who made your joy possible. The more often you do this, the easier it becomes and the quicker you will find happiness in small and big moments.