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November 11, 2020

A little tip for when you’re Hardwired to only Notice the Negative.

I frequently give talks about grief, and predictably, I encounter this problem:

When I skim audience evaluations for my presentation, my mind first worries about and scans for negative remarks. I completely overlook any positive feedback I may have received. Even if l8 out of 20 people liked my talk, my attention is drawn to and ruminates over two lackluster or critical reviews.

Best-selling author and neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains that we, as human beings, are hardwired to notice what’s wrong. For our ancient ancestors, this vigilance was essential for survival. If you missed an enemy, you were likely to be lunch.

Today, we are less subject to lions and arrows, and yet this “negativity bias” persists. We steer toward the problematic and don’t as easily take in what’s good.

This seems especially true in times of grief. And yet, taking in the good is the best medicine we could offer ourselves.

As a hospice volunteer, I sat with a 50-year-old woman named Connie, who knew she wouldn’t live to see her grandchildren grow up. She felt particularly close to her grandson, Aron. One day, as she was in bed and weeping, I put my hand on her arm and asked her to tell me about Aron and what she most loved. She stopped crying and a big grin came across her face. As she began telling me in great detail about the experiences they had shared, her agitation subsided, replaced now by gratitude and ease.

If gratitude is good—at least to counter the bias toward negativity and stress—what can we do to bring more of it into our lives?

One beginning step that I practice in my own life and also introduce in bereavement and cancer support groups is keeping a gratitude journal. The basic idea is simple: to pause, remember experiences for which you feel grateful, and write them down.

How you keep a gratitude journal is a matter of personal preference. There’s no rocket science! Some people like to use a notebook or spiral-bound book. Others prefer a laptop. Think about whether your words come more freely, whether it is easier or more difficult to express ideas and emotions, through writing by hand or tapping on a keyboard. If you choose to write, take time to reflect on what appeals most to you—blank or lined pages, a fine pen or marker, black ink or a favorite color.

A way to start is to think about a few pleasant experiences you had today. You might create a nighttime ritual before bed. Or you might decide to reflect on gratitude with your morning coffee. As you recall meaningful moments, linger with them and notice their details and texture, whether there are images or sensations that arise. Try and recall experiences in which someone has extended a kindness or generosity to you. If a gift is unexpected (for example, a friend stopped by to visit), all the better! Savor it!

Expressive writing teacher Deborah Ross recommends working with positive statements. For example, if you are pleased the house was especially quiet throughout the day, you could write in your journal: “I am grateful for the peace that permeated the house today. I was able to think about my loved one without any of the usual distractions.” Ross explains that adding a sentence as to why you feel especially grateful can “widen the smile of remembrance.” A gratitude expressed in a negative statement is less effective, for example, “I’m grateful that the kids were not noisy today.”

If you are having difficulty getting started, you may want to create a simple list of three things about which you feel grateful at the end of the day. Today, I took a shower and put on clean clothes. I enjoyed a tuna sandwich at lunch. I found a parking space, or a store clerk smiled at me. If you are not sure how to begin, you might use these questions as prompts. “What have others done for me today? What have I done for others?”

As you become more comfortable reflecting on gratitude, you may choose to write about people who are essential in your life, your children, or grandchildren, or close friends. Or you might reflect on big things, known and unknown. Who provided the food you ate today? How is it possible that you have clean water?

A benefit of writing in a journal or computer file is that you collect your thoughts in one place, so you can look back and see what you were thinking and feeling at different moments. You’ll probably be surprised to see how your thoughts and feelings change over time—a reminder that everything is impermanent.

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