I want you to try a little exercise with me. It won’t take long, but I do insist that you try it in real time while reading this. You will need a paper and pen, or some other kind of medium for recording things. Ready? Okay, here we go.
I want you to think of and write down the first five negative memories you have of recent interactions with others. They can be your children, your spouse, or people at work. Don’t go into detail, just five quick sentences or descriptions.
All set? Good, now, repeat the same exercise, except with the first five positive memories. When you are done, keep reading. Don’t worry, the Internet will wait.
Now ask yourself a few simple questions. Were you able to think of five things in both cases? Which was harder to recall, the positive or the negative ones?
If you found it easier to remember the negative memories, don’t feel bad. As it turns out, our brains are hard-wired to recall negative memories far more easily than positive ones. It’s called the negativity bias, and it’s a well known psychological behavior.
I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. At the end of the day at work I can often only recall the frustrations or negative interactions I’ve had. Even when talking about my children, whom I am incredibly grateful to have in my life, I’ve found it’s entirely too easy to focus on negative behaviors. As a result, I often miss out or discount the many small positive things that happen on a daily basis.
I overcome a major challenge at work, but all I can remember is looking over a poor design for an upcoming project and how angry it made me feel (I’m a bit of a “do-righter”, but that’s another story).
I take a walk in the woods with my young son and we spend nearly an hour wandering around learning to identity the different kinds of trees, but all I can remember is how he was too rough with his little sister after lunch.
My wife leaves a little note for me saying how much she appreciates my helping out with the kids, but all I can remember is how she chided me for not finishing some task around the house on time.
Fortunately, with a little intentional behavior, this tendency can be overcome.
First, make note of these small positive occurrences when they happen. When I say “make note”, I mean that quite literally. It’s fine to be more mindful of these things and enjoy them in the moment, but to really be effective I’ve found I must record them somewhere, before they get lost in the jumble of events my brain processes. In the digital age I do this by sending myself an e-mail, snapping a photo, or making a note in Evernote with my mobile device. A small notepad would certainly work too. The exact method isn’t important, so long as it gets the memory out of your head.
Second, create a habit of reviewing these tiny but crucial moments at the end of the day. It’s refreshing and rejuvenating to see these little moments revisited, and it helps to end the day on a positive note. This doesn’t need to take a long time, perhaps five or ten minutes.
Try this habit for a week, and see if your mood and perception doesn’t shift. As an added bonus, you’ll be building up a reservoir of good things that happen to you, which is a powerful thing to have when your life hits an inevitable rough patch. By reminding ourselves of all that is good in our lives, we develop better resiliency and ability to work through the difficulties we face. Memory is a powerful thing, especially when selectively focused.