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.

We’re All Lance Armstrong

We’re greatly influenced by—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively—those we associate closest with in our work lives and our private lives.

I found Tyler Hamilton’s 60 Minutes interview fascinating from more of a social science perspective than a moral one. Hamilton’s and Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug use is an interesting social-psych case study. At some point, probably decades ago, performance enhancing drug use reached a tipping point where a majority of cyclists said, “Screw it, I’m in.”

From that point forward, anyone with Hamilton’s and Armstrong’s physical tools and off the charts competitive drive probably had very little problem rationalizing it with the same mindset that regularly trips up thousands of young people every year, “Everyone’s doing it.”

It’s the same phenomenon we sometimes see on the freeway when it’s turned into a parking lot as a result of a bad accident. One person eventually decides the risk-reward is worth it, so they pull out from the far right lane onto the shoulder and take off into the horizon. Then, a second person. Then, a third. I can either sit and reflect on my moral superiority or get home at the same time as them, but not both.

Given the work culture of his chosen profession, I almost find Armstrong a sympathetic figure. To have “just said no” he would have either had to have found something else to do with his life or settle in as a second-tier domestique stuffing water bottles down his back.

Almost a sympathetic figure because through his repeated, robotic denials, he wants everyone to believe he’s special. He’s the only one who stayed in his lane, but somehow still arrived home before everyone else. That’s how good he was.

It’s as this point, Armstrong turns into a fascinating psychological case study. In one respect, we’re all Lance Armstrong in the sense that everyone one of us maintains public personas, revealing less than the truth about ourselves to the larger world. Of course the difference with Lance is the degree of duplicity.

He must wake up at night worried about what the federal grand jury’s findings might do to his athletic legacy, his future marketing potential and income, and donations to his foundation.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t ever expect him to come clean, just doesn’t seem he’s nearly introspective enough. And that’s too bad, because I’d gain some respect for him if he did. Of course, my acceptance and approval are meaningless compared to the rewards of self acceptance.

Mental File Folders

Social psychologists suggest our brains are filled with mental file folders of sort that enable us to take short cuts when bumping into or first interacting with people. Labels such as male, female, rich, poor, overweight, African-American, professor, Wall Street banker, southerner, foreigner, libertarian, conservative republican, liberal democrat, elderly, homeless, aspergers, gay, lesbian, environmentalist, evangelical Christian. We also have thinner files that might be (awkwardly) labeled, “male, conservative republican, evangelical Christian”.

Without our mental file folders, we’d have to make sense of each new person from scratch; consequently, we’d be too overwhelmed to function normally.

The question though is how thick are our respective folders? In our increasingly diverse world, we can get into serious trouble when our folders are so thin that we succumb to inaccurate stereotypes. Everyone has preconceived notions about other groups of people. The best antidote for negative preconceived notions is getting to know a wider range of diverse individuals through direct daily experience. Only then can you get a feel for a key cross-cultural insight or sensibility, that the individual differences within each file folder are typically greater than between them.

Our challenge as multicultural people is to do two things simultaneously, to recognize that there are group patterns, themes, and differences, and to recognize that the individual differences within each group are usually greater than the differences between groups. There’s lots of evidence that not everyone is up to this relatively sophisticated, multitasking, social psychological balancing act.

Fast forward to Thursday night’s training ride with about thirty other cyclists. Early on, heading out-of-town, I was spinning casually in the back (like Lance Armstrong) when a new rider introduced himself. At 20mph we talked for the next ten minutes. A military officer with about 20 years experience. Our worldviews couldn’t have been more different. We discussed drones in Afghanistan, the McChrystal firing, and his work more generally.

I’m about as dovish as they come and he was all hawk. I was unpleasantly surprised by his “I sleep well at night” lack of introspection. Cue the “military personnel” folder. Fortunately in that folder are a few “pieces of paper” representing the marines I met while teaching in Ethiopia. They were based at the US embassy and would travel to our school to hoop it up with us once or twice a week. We became friends. They invited a few of us to the embassy in the middle of the night to watch the World Series, and without knowing it, they helped me rethink my preconceived notions of military personnel.

So I’m adding my new cycling acquaintance to my “military personnel” folder, but not overgeneralizing about all military personnel based upon my admittedly brief interaction with him.