The conscious evolution of appreciation (Day 53)
The neuropsychologist (and Wildmind contributor) Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is very good at pointing out that our brains have a negativity bias. Our brains, as he puts it, are like velcro for painful experiences and teflon for pleasant experiences. And this bias has arisen because of our evolutionary history: hominins and early humans who ignored potential threats didn’t leave many ancestors, and so we’re descended from rather “twitchy” forebears who were good at thinking about things that might go wrong.
But now that, for most of us reading this article, our basic needs are largely covered, and so we find ourselves in the situation not of struggling to live, but of trying to live happily and meaningfully. And our inherited negativity bias — in the forms of anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. — doesn’t generally help us to live well. We find ourselves the richest and safest people who have ever lived, and finding life to be unpleasant much of the time. As the comedian Louis C.K. put it, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
“…a guy on an airplane was pissed off because the plane’s internet wasn’t working – how quickly the world owes him something he didn’t even know existed 10 seconds earlier….”
We’re flying around the world in metal tubes, six miles above the ground, entertaining ourselves with electronic devices that seemed like science fiction when I was a child, and we’re not very happy.
Well, we can still evolve, although in saying those words I’m not referring to our genes but to our minds. Sangharakshita points out that biological evolution has brought us to the point were we can start wondering about the point, and that from here on it’s up to us.
If you view our mental states as a population, you can see mindfulness and wisdom as a selection pressure. When we start to see that anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. impoverish our lives, there’s an incentive for us to drop those habits. It’s just like a selection pressure in biology acting to weed out certain maladaptive genes. We can consciously encourage the development of more skillful states of mind — that is, states that lead to the emotional and spiritual enrichment of our lives.
One practice I encourage is to rejoice in what’s going right in our lives, and to say “Thank you.” At this point some people will be thinking “There’s nothing going right in my life.” We’ve all had thoughts like that. But those thoughts are never true.
Are you alive? If so, say, “Thank you.”
(Say the words “Thank you” in your mind at least, clearly articulated and consciously generated.)
Do you have air to breathe? It took countless billions of beings to manufacture the atmosphere that sustains you. Say, “Thank you.”
A few thousand years ago, your chances of dying violently were about one in three. You’re currently living in one of the safest periods in our species’ history. Say, “Thank you.”
The chances are that you’re living in a relatively democratic country. Say, “Thank you.”
You’re probably inside a building, sheltered from the elements. Say, “Thank you.”
You’re reading this online, so you have internet service. Say, “Thank you.”
And electricity. Say, “Thank you.”
Probably clean water as well. Say, “Thank you.”
The building you’re in is probably covered by all kinds of building codes designed to keep you safe. Countless thousands of people have labored to make this a safe world for you to live in. Say, “Thank you.”
Outside, there are roads and bridges. Say, “Thank you.”
(When I’m driving and I’m a bit bored or frustrated I remind myself that there is actually a road to drive on and suddenly driving changes from being stressful to being a miracle.
Almost all of us have access to grocery stores containing a bewildering variety of foods. Say, “Thank you.”
This isn’t to deny that there are things wrong with the world, or that things couldn’t be better. But often we’ll focus on the negative (there’s a pothole at the end of my street) rather than the positive (I live on a paved street). And it’s not to deny that life is genuinely hard for many people. But count your blessings.
So this is a practice I encourage. Focus more on what’s going right, and less on what’s less than ideal. Consciously say “Thank you.” Even if this seems a little weird or artificial, it can have an amazing effect on our lives. This is an excellent way to get into mudita, or joyous appreciation.
Everything’s amazing. And if you keep reminding yourself of that, you won’t be unhappy.