The dishwasher overflowed last night, you woke up to a kitchen floor full of suds and were late to work. You found out two days ago that the mole on your Dad’s ear was malignant. A monster typhoon slammed into the Philippines and left 10,000 dead.
It seems that every where you turn these days there’s more than enough stress, chaos, and bad news. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and just flat-out disgusted with it all. How do you find the good, happiness, and joy in the midst of so much bad? You have look for it, notice it, and take it in. That’s how.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson explains that our brains don’t automatically recognize the good for two reasons. First, there isn’t a stimulus to catch your attention usually in something good. There’s no threat, no fear, nothing to make your brain take notice. Your brain doesn’t automatically note all the bad things that didn’t happen. Second, through a process called habituation, your brain filters out things that don’t change whether it’s the refrigerator’s hum or, thankfully, the routine absence of disasters in our daily lives.
While habituation is an efficient use of neural resources, it causes a lot of the good that’s around us all the time to go unnoticed. According to Hanson, to counteract the brains’ natural tendency, we have to look for, put emphasis on, and create good experiences. To do this involves becoming aware of what good is present in your life and making the thought an embodied experience accompanied by good feelings, sensations, desires, and actions.
Hanson’s not talking about making anything up here. He only asks that we see what’s true and already there and shift our perspectives. This doesn’t mean denying the bad realities. It means choosing to focus on the facts that could yield a good experience.
Often we see a good fact but don’t have any feelings about it. This seemingly small step – from idea to embodied experience – is critically important, for without it, there’s not much to install in your brain. In terms of building neural structure, what matters is not the event or circumstance or condition itself but your experience of it.
So how, exactly, do you do this? You take in the good by noticing a positive that is already present or creating one. He suggests finding good facts in your current setting, recent events, ongoing conditions, personal qualities, the past, and the lives of others.
You’re alive. You ate today. The sun is out. That trip to the beach last summer was awesome. You exercised yesterday. You have always been a hard worker. You’re smart. You earned a college degree and nabbed that award at work last year. Your cousin just had a healthy baby boy. These seemingly small, but good things can be turned into embodied experiences by tuning into your body and allowing yourself to really feel the positive emotions and sensations accompanying the thoughts. It’s important to follow through on any positive actions that might occur to you with the events.
Good facts are around us all every moment of every day. Even “bad” facts often contain seeds for good experiences. You have to intentionally look for the good in the bad. What lessons did you learn? Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?
Sometimes, it’s impossible to find good or create a good experience. You might be in terrible pain, have suffered a tremendous loss, be buried in depression or in a panic. That’s OK. That’s being human. With compassion for yourself, accept where you are, ride out the storm, and look for the good when you can come up for air.
After a suicide attempt years ago, I was left seriously brain injured and lost custody of my two sons who moved to a different state with their father. As part of my emotional recovery in the years that followed, I HAD to consciously look for the good around me because there wasn’t much readily apparent anymore. At times, I had to get out the magnifying glass, but good was ALWAYS still there. I just had to notice it. The sun warming my cheeks as I walked the dog on a chilly morning; the silkiness of the cat’s fur as I scratched her rumbling chin with her curled up on my lap; a really good tune playing on my iPod were the smallest of joys, but joys nonetheless.
Noticing the good has become an invaluable staple in my mental health tool box. It’s a choice, costs nothing, and anyone can do it anywhere at any time. With practice, making a conscious effort to notice the good and internalizing it becomes a habit making it easier to activate and maintain a positive state of mind even in the midst of chaos or upsetting events. Over time, the practice actually changes the neuronal structure of your brain hardwiring it for happiness.
Look for the good, and you will find it.