Hardwired For Unhappiness

Welcome to format free Fridays at AskDrDarcy.com, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life: Unsolicited advice.

I know it’s a strange title, particularly given that I’m trained in positive psychology, the tenets of which are grounded in the belief that increased happiness is the essence of what every human being wants.  But the truth is, the human brain is hardwired to focus on and remember negative experiences.

You know those people who are afraid of dogs?  They’ve had a thousand positive experiences with dogs, but that one dog bite has forever overshadowed their good memories. And before you judge them as animal haters, reflect back to the last party you attended.  The next day, did you remember all the smart and witty things you said or did you hyper-focus on your one foot-in-the-mouth moment?

About a month ago I had a conference call with some heavy hitters in the media world.  The call was going fine and we were just about to end the conversation when I attempted to make a joke that was not funny.  My flat joke was followed by a beat of silence and then the call ended abruptly. I walked out of my room to meet my wife in the hall (who was also on the call) and she said, ”Darce, do you have to say things like that?”  To which I responded, “Uh, hello! Did you think I meant to make that asinine remark? You want to help me find the rewind button?”   Despite the fact that I’ve had a month filled with good news and exciting prospects, I’ve thought of that dumb conference call almost every day.

Not only is our brain predisposed to harping on negativity, it processes negative experiences instantly as opposed to positive experiences which take 5-10 seconds to register.  It’s all about evolution.  Our brain, first and foremost, is intended to keep us alive and so it processes vital information (threats) before it processes other information.  Our brains are, sadly, Velcro when it comes to negative experiences and Teflon when it comes to positive experiences, the byproduct of which renders us, well, likely to be cranky.  So what should we do?  Give in to our genetic predisposition to be miserable?

You know there’s a take away here.  We don’t have to be miserable any more than we have to follow in the genetic paths of our ancestors and die at the age of 35.  But happiness takes more work.  It requires conscious effort to retrain our brains to scan for the positive in life.  And here’s one effective (albeit, hokey), way of beginning.

For the next 30 days, commit to posting on Facebook 3 things that you’re grateful for.  In fact, do it on my wall.  Friend me @ Facebook.com/DrDarcySterling.  And we can measure whether this has a positive effect on your happiness.  Measure your happiness today (it’s free & takes 5 minutes) at AuthenticHappiness.org and measure it again on March 24th. What do you have to lose?  A scowl?