Let’s talk about default settings folks.
You are familiar with them on your tech devices, yes? The way your smartphone is organized and set up to factory settings. How you have to customize and arrange the categories and preferences to your liking. To what is most efficient for your lifestyle.
Our brains have default settings too.
Mo Gawdat talks a bit about it in his original book Solve For Happy. Gawdat discusses how the human brain has a tendency to spot what’s wrong and what can represent a threat over what is going right or what is mundane. Gawdat even goes on to provide research that proves the brain’s proclivity for pessimism:
“Ample research has shown that we tend to think negative– self-critical, pessimistic, and fearful- thoughts more than positive thoughts. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “psychic entropy” to indicate that worrying is the brain’s default position … Based on Deepak Chopra’s blog post, ‘Why Meditate?’ [ratios] can add up to a whopping 35,000 negative thoughts per day.”
Gawdat outlines a plethora of negative biases that are backed by scientific research.
We tend to give greater weight to negative thoughts when we make decisions.
We dedicate more of our brain resources to negative information.
We tend to remember negative traits more easily.
We even have more negative words in our vocabulary! (62% of all emotional words in the English dictionary are negative)
These negative biases are not a coincidence. In fact, they are reflected in the biological design of the brain:
“The amygdala uses approximately two-thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brains starts looking for bad news, it stores it into the long-term memory immediately, while positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than twelve seconds in order for transfer from short-term to long-term memory to occur.”
So why are our brains wired this way?
There was a time when we were hunters and gatherers. A time where we had minimal protection from predators and because of that our brains were wired for raw survival. We couldn’t afford the optimism of “Oh, there are no tigers around here. Don’t bother checking.” or “Walk into that cave, you’ll be just fine.”
Our brains weren’t set up to encourage us. They were set up to protect us.
The dilemma we face today is that our brains are still functioning in Stone Age settings despite how much society has evolved. So instead of worrying about a crouching lion waiting to attack us when we walk out of our homes, our brains are using the same setting to trigger us anytime we are reminded of heartbreak, loss or disappointment.
So that new relationship that you may be in – when they keep their phone face down on the counter, your brain automatically reminds you of the ex that was cheating on you and you become convinced that his new relationship is doomed because clearly, they too, are cheating. You need to leave before the stitches come undone again.
Or when your recovering drug-addict mother says she is running late to meet you, you are convinced she has stopped at a crack house to pawn off the wedding ring you bought back three years ago when she first went to rehab. Even after she arrives fifteen minutes later, you find yourself giving her the silent treatment because really, it’s only a matter of time.
We are wired to notice, focus and remember the negative.
The good news is that we do have the power to change these settings, just like we change the settings on our phone. Well – maybe not as easily. There is no instruction manual involved and it will take more than just a few taps of a screen.
In his commencement speech “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace talks about the importance of exercising control over how and what we think about.
“Think of the old cliche about the mind being ‘an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many cliches, so lame and banal on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in … the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting.”
Don’t be a slave to your thoughts or your brain. Change your settings. Start today.
As you make dinner tonight, get ready for bed, wake-up tomorrow morning, practice gratitude, practice gratitude, practice gratitude. Even as you sit in traffic or wait in that long-ass pre-Christmas line at Target, PRACTICE GRATITUDE.
Serve others. Serving others can be as simple as a text to remind someone you miss them or ask them how they’re doing instead of sitting around being sour because they haven’t called you in months.
And everything you do, I mean EVERYTHING, do it with love.
These practices and philosophies may not be default, but you can train yourself to make them habit.
We get one time around with this spirit in these bodies we call “home.” Take advantage and live your life with a sense of peace that can’t be attained on your default setting.
***This is essay 47 in the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Mártir.