As 2021 comes to a close, there’s a lot of talk about what a difficult year it’s been. And it has been a difficult year in a lot of ways. A year filled with pain, disappointment and loss. Yet there have been many positive things that have happened this year, both on an individual and global level (think of where we were last year, deep in lockdown and before the rollout of vaccinations…)
Isn’t it interesting that we notice the negative things that happen much more than the positive? We can have so many things go right and then one thing goes wrong and it ruins the whole day! This is actually backed up by research, Dr Rick Hanson says that our brains process positive stimuli very differently from negative stimuli. He says that our “brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive experiences.”
So what does this mean for us? Are we doomed to just accept that no matter how many things go right for us, we’re still going to feel negative?
The good news is that we can actually train our brains, through our patterns of thought. In the Shema prayer we talk about what G-d will provide for us, we mention that we will get rain in the right time, that we will gather in our grain, our oil and our wine. And on top of that we will have grass for our animals, which will ensure that we have enough to eat. The point of this is that we will have enough to eat, so why bother pointing out all the steps along the way?
The Torah here is showing us the antidote to our human tendency to negativity. Yes, the point is that G-d will give us enough to eat. But for us to be happy with the blessing of food, it’s not enough to just notice the end result, we have to notice and appreciate all the steps along the way. We have to notice the rain, that our produce is growing, that our animals have what to eat and that we have to eat.
This lines up with Dr Hanson’s research, that in order for positive experiences to have an equal impact to the negative experiences, we need to focus on them with intention for much longer. We can achieve that by noticing not just the end result, but the steps along the way. When we get to an important meeting on time, instead of just breathing a sign of relief, we can notice all the steps that got us there, whether it was having a car that works, traffic that ran smoothly, traffic lights that changed in a timely fashion. Or whether it was having a public transport system that works (more or less), catching the bus on time etc.
When we get into the habit of noticing not just the end result but all the steps along the way this is the secret to retraining our brains to notice the positive and to being happy. Remember that our brains don’t automatically notice the positive, so we have to notice not just positive results but all the steps along the way that are positive.