We’re pleased to present the latest installment of Dr. Rick Hanson’s Greater Good blog, featuring posts from his Just One Thing (JOT) newsletter, which offers simple practices designed to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.
Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish—and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.
But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others—including mine—or your own in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing, and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already—including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age, and death—without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.
Your brain evolved exactly such a “negativity bias” in order to help your ancestors pass on their genes, a bias that produces lots of collateral damage today.
Painful experiences are more than passing discomforts. They produce lasting harms to your physical and mental health. When you’re feeling frazzled, pressured, down, hard on yourself, or simply frustrated, that:
- Weakens your immune system
- Impairs nutrient absorption in your gastrointestinal system
- Increases vulnerabilities in your cardiovascular system
- Decreases your reproductive hormones; exacerbates PMS
- Disturbs your nervous system
Consider the famous saying: “Neurons that wire together, fire together.” This means that repeated painful experiences, even mild ones, tend to ncrease pessimism, anxiety, and irritability; lower your mood; and reduce ambition and positive risk-taking.
In a couple, upsetting experiences foster mistrust, heightened sensitivity to relatively small issues, distance, and vicious cycles. At much larger scales—between groups or nations—they do much the same.
So don’t take painful experiences lightly, neither the ones you get nor, honestly, the ones you give. Prevent them when you can, and help them pass through when you can’t.
This week, take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door—and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind.
This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.
In effect, you’re simply saying to yourself something you’d say to a dear friend in pain: I want you to feel better, and I’m going to help you. Try saying that to yourself in your mind right now. How does it feel?
When emotional pain does come, even softly, try to hold it in a large space of awareness. In a traditional metaphor, imagine stirring a big spoon of salt into a cup of water and then drinking it: yuck. But then imagine stirring that spoonful into a clean bucket of water and then drinking a cup: it’s the same amount of salt—the same amount of worry or frustration, feeling inadequate or blue—but held in a larger context. Notice that awareness is without any edges, boundless like the sky, with thoughts and feelings passing through.
In your mind, watch out for how negative information, events, or experiences can seem to overpower positive ones. For example, researchers have found that people typically will work harder or put up with more crud to avoid losing something than to gain the same thing. And they feel more contaminated by one fault than they feel cleansed or elevated by several virtues. Try to switch this around; for instance, pick some of your good qualities and keep seeing how they show up in your life this week.
Be careful whenever you feel stymied, frustrated, or disappointed. Humans (and other mammals) are very vulnerable to what’s called “learned helplessness”—developing a sense of futility, immobilization, and passivity. Focus on where you can make a difference, where you do have power; it may only be inside your own mind, but that’s better than nothing at all.
In your relationships, be mindful of reacting more strongly to one negative event than to a bunch of positive ones. For example, studies have shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative encounter. Pick an important relationship, and then really pay attention to what’s working in it; let yourself feel good about these things. Deal with the problems in this relationship, sure, but keep them in perspective.
Overall, whenever you remember, deliberately tilt toward the positive in your mind. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Given the negativity bias in the brain, you’re only leveling the playing field.
Wonderful article. I so love the metaphor of the salt
water and the reminder to hold difficulties in a larger
context. I have been increasingly able to live in that
space in recent years.
I would like to know more about the research on how
painful experiences cause permanent harm to our
health. Having lived through the death of both my
daughter 2 years ago, and my fiancé 6 years ago I
have experienced intense loss and sadness. I have
allowed grief to change me in good ways and now
feel a freedom and gratitude that I might never have
known otherwise. However, the residual health
concerns intrigue me. Could you provide article or
book titles I might want to refer to? Thanks.
Becky | 9:08 am, July 25, 2012 | Link
Thank you, Rick. And thank you Becky for your comment. How wonderful that you’ve been able to feel freedom and gratitude since your tragic losses.
I would also like to know of any more references.
JT | 12:48 pm, July 25, 2012 | Link
This technique is fine for the average person who experiences the occasional negative phenomenon. For the person who is beset by overwhelming negative phenomena, especially when they are not the result of life choices, this is next to useless. It offers little help and no metaphysical explanation. In fact, it becomes equivalent to a taunt.
Now, of course, will come the predictable repsonses: our current circumstances are the result of karma, we “manifest” the lives we want or feel we deserve, every obstacle or instance of suffering comes with a gift for us, blah, blah. The rationalizations concocted by the New Age/self help/Easter spirituality subculture are endless.
JDE | 5:43 am, July 30, 2012 | Link
Regarding JDE’s comment:
In the speaking and writing of many people “beset by overwhelming negative phenomena, especially when they are not the result of life choices” - such as Victor Frankl, Pema Chodren, and many others who are less well known - there is routinely found a valuing of the use of perspective, self-compassion, self-advocacy, self-soothing, social support, finding of meaning, and other methods of mental practice mentioned or implied in my post that do not themselves change unchangeable circumstances but give one a way to live with them with less suffering. It is when we are most beset by negative phenomena not of our own making that we MOST benefit from engaging the mind in pracitce
It is a common but false dichotomy to think that either we change the world or we change our own mind. Obviously, both can be changed for the better! And improvements in each can foster improvements in the other.
Last, I have never written that “our current circumstances are the result of karma, we ‘manifest’ the lives we want or feel we deserve, every obstacle or instance of suffering comes with a gift for us” or anything close to it. The reason is, I totally disagree with the three points in quotes, particularly with the angle on them you impute to me.
Rick Hansen | 11:30 am, July 30, 2012 | Link