Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

The Nostalgia Trap

As I age, I’d like to avoid many middle-aged and elderly people’s penchant for complaining that “compared to back in the day, the world is going to hell.” Much of that pessimism rests on selective perception. Except for the clinically depressed, isn’t life a constantly shifting mix of good and bad?

Here’s a related NYT book review excerpt from a new novel “Super Sad” which takes place in the near future.

“Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money. It’s “zero hour for our economy,” says one of Lenny’s friends, “zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves.”

Is your relative optimism or pessimism based upon the quality of your nation’s governance, economy, and military, or as I suspect, more on the nature of your personal budget, the status of your family’s and your health, the quality of your friendships, and the relative purposefulness of your work.

I’m feeling positive about life today in part because of a post run lake swim, an enjoyable dinner with three friends, and an amazing sunset over the sound.

I have downer moments, days, and weeks like everyone.

I prefer spending time with people who reject the myth of a golden yesteryear and what sociologists refer to as “deficit model” thinking and show empathy for the truly unfortunate. People whose thoughts, words, and deeds are more hopeful than cynical.