Once, I left my toddler behind at the elementary school. I figured it out when I looked over my shoulder at the empty bike trailer attached to my bike. In my right mind, I would have calmly turned my bike around, instructed my other children to do the same and headed back up to the kindergarten playground. Instead, I panicked, and it knocked the sense out of me.
I dropped my bike and took off running, yelling at my other kids to stay put. Twenty steps into this mad dash, I realized that I had ditched wheels for legs and opted for the slowest transportation possible — the bike would have made the trip in half the time. Still, I couldn’t reverse course. I ran in a blind panic until I had her in my arms again, which was the exact moment that it dawned on me that I had abandoned two other small children on a stretch of sidewalk a quarter mile away.
The story ended happily — all of my chicks were safely escorted home that day. But panic pickled my thinking and distilled my options down to one: RUN!
Nix the negative
Negative emotions constrict our thinking, according to Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at UNC Chapel Hill. Anger, sadness, fear, panic and anxiety are like brain blinders that keep us from seeing the big picture. Think about the last fight you had with your significant other — could you think about anything else? Or when you lay in bed at night stressing over a test the next day — how rational was your thought process?
While negative emotions limit our thoughts, positive emotions like joy, serenity, gratitude, love and appreciation open the mind to context and possibilities. Fredrickson’s research has shown that people experiencing positive emotions score higher on creative problem-solving and have wider awareness and resilience. (1)
See the good and savor it
In today’s social psychology equation, seeing the good = appreciation (acknowledging value in events, objects, people and behaviors). Appreciation can be “what a beautiful butterfly,” “I am so glad she is my neighbor,” “what a kind little girl to help her brother up,” “there is so much good in my life” or “I am so glad no one was hurt.” Researchers at Rutgers University found that people who practiced appreciation reported better life satisfaction and well-being. (2)
Loyola psychologist Fred Bryant says savoring good moments like these counteracts the brain’s negativity bias, which makes it hold on to unpleasant experiences with the tenacity of an English bulldog, while letting positive ones slide out, forgotten. Like a sip of fine wine held before swallowing to truly appreciate the flavors, Bryant suggests that sweet moments in life should be swished around and savored. (3)
Ways to savor:
- Take that sunset in slowly. Stop wherever you are and focus on the moment of beauty.
- Count blessings, lingering on gratitude for each one.
- Tell someone else about a good feeling — it reinforces it in your own brain.
- Use your senses intensely. On a hike in the Sierras, I savored a breathtaking meadow: the sounds of trickling water, the cool breeze coming up from the valley, the earthy meadow smell, the pleasing blend of green and white and yellow and red as far as I could see.
- Take a mental photo (or a real one) of sweet moments. Don’t let the bliss of family laughter slip away into a forgotten place in your brain.
More on seeing the good
Barbara Fredrickson on positivity
- Fredrickson B. Are you getting enough positivity in your diet? UC Berkeley: Greater Good. June 21, 2011. Accessed Feb 22, 2017.
- Adler MG and Fagley NS. Appreciation: Individual differences in predictor of subjective well-being. Journal of Personality. 2005;73:1.
- Kennelly S. 10 steps to savoring the good things in life. UCBerkeley: Greater Good. Jul 23, 2012. Accessed Feb 17, 2017.