I’m fortunate to live in one of Sydney’s leafy suburbs, surrounded by a variety of different trees and bushes. And where there are trees, there is wildlife.
This morning a dozen or more rainbow lorikeets were flying and chattering outside my bedroom, showing off their beautiful plumage and enjoying the nectar of the flowering bushes. Seeing them always brings a smile to my face. Other mornings I wake with the sound of Kookaburras, or go to sleep with the sound of possums. I’m amazed at how all these creatures can thrive just five kms from the centre of Sydney’s CBD.
However, this is a two-edged sword. In the evenings just before sunset, the bats nesting in the surrounding trees take flight and gorge themselves on the fruit of the many fig trees in this area. As remarkable as it is to see these mammals in full flight I know it means that the following morning we’ll be cleaning their droppings off the glass doors, windows and veranda furniture.
Everything in life has two sides. Although it may be clichéd to talk about seeing the glass as half full or half empty, it’s pretty accurate. We can complain about the noise, the mess. Or we can savour the beauty nature brings us.
The fact is it’s easier to see the problems. Our brains are wired to look for the bad as a means of avoiding potential harm. This is called a negativity bias and it developed as a survival mechanism. The caveman who felt anxious about the rustle in the nearby bushes or worried about where his next meal would come from would be more motivated to protect himself and his family and go hunting every day. Consequently he was likely to live longer and have more children than the chilled, laid-back caveman. So these negative emotions were passed on genetically and we still have them today.
But positive emotions have a purpose too, they support our survival in a different way. Negative emotions help us to see and focus on the problems, but we’re more likely to find new and innovative solutions when we’re relaxed and feeling good. Instead of just running from the predator lurking in the bushes, our positive emotions may have helped us see objects that could be used as potential weapons to defend ourselves, or to build fences to keep our family safe. Instead of hunting every day, positive emotions may have allowed us to find ways of storing meat for longer, like drying or smoking it.
Positive emotions are also good for our health. By engaging the body’s natural relaxation response and reducing blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, positive emotions can be restorative to our immune system, our cardiovascular system and our psychological health. There are also studies suggesting that positive emotions can help us live longer.
If you find yourself focusing on the risks in life more than is necessary try shifting your attention to what is good in your life. Try counting your blessings and practicing gratitude for what makes your life enjoyable, what gives you pleasure in life. Not just the big things life having a roof over your head. Small things count too, like enjoying the rainbow lorikeets chatter and fly.
Here are some exercises to help increase your positivity:
Take a piece of your least and most favourite food on a plate and describe them with “a beginner’s mind”, ie as if this was the first time you had ever tasted it. You may even want to write down your thoughts as you go through the exercise.
Take a long, slow, non-judgmental look at your least favourite food. Explore its appearance, smell, taste and texture and describe it to yourself without the use of negative words. For example, instead of saying the food’s texture is repulsive, you may describe it more accurately as grainy, clumpy, squishy, slimy, sticky or something else. The taste may be unpleasant to you but if you were to describe it to someone who’d never eaten it before you’d need to use more objective language like bitter, metallic or perhaps extremely sweet. Choose neutral, descriptive language in your descriptions.
Now do the same with your most favourite food.
Consider the difference with curiosity. What makes one pleasant to you and the other not? Why may this preference be different for someone else?
Choose one of your regular daily activities that you don’t like doing, and another that you do like.
Take a long, slow, non-judgmental look at the activity you don’t like to do and break it down into its smaller parts. If, for example you don’t like cooking, consider the parts to cooking a meal. Taking the ingredients out of your fridge or pantry, preparing the utensils, measuring, chopping or otherwise preparing the foods, etc. Consider each step with a beginner’s mind and describe it to yourself as if you were describing it to someone else. Use neutral, descriptive, non-judgmental language. As you consider each step, ask yourself if this step on its own is unpleasant, and if yes, why? (Don’t just say “because I don’t like it”)
Do the same for an activity you enjoy.
Consider the difference with curiosity. What feelings arise within you for each of these steps? What makes one pleasant to you and the other not? Why may this preference be different for someone else?
When you break things down in this way you may find yourself exploring the stories that have led you to believe you don’t like something, when in fact you may be able to feel neutral towards it, or even like it a little. Perhaps, for example, you don’t like cooking when you’re time-poor but don’t mind it when you’re feeling relaxed. Perhaps you thought you dislike the taste of cooked cauliflower but it’s actually the smell you don’t like.
Staying unguarded and curious about the routine things in our life, the things we assume we know everything about, helps to keep us open to possibilities. This attitude increases our positivity to everyday things and shifts the mindset from a problem-focused to a solution-focused attitude. Finally, ask yourself, would a more solution-focused attitude add value to your life?