Are we natural-born grumps?


Let’s start this post with a little experiment.

Think about yesterday (or last week. Or even last year, if you wish).

Before you read on, make a list of three events that you remember clearly about yesterday, or whichever time-frame you have chosen.

(are you thinking and listing?)


Ok, here goes my list:

Yesterday, …

1. I couldn’t go running after work because I forgot to bring socks (Panama -> hot -> running without socks -> blisters…and also it’s kinda euw to sweat in your shoes). By the time I got home, it was already too late and I was hungry. I’m not going to lie – it pissed me off. (Luckily there was a crappy talent show on TV about Ricky Martin giving a poor schmuck song writer “the chance of his lifetime” by stealing recording his song and making it the official world cup single. The song went something like this “La vida buena…Buena Vida…oooaahh…eh eh eh…”. They spent about half an hour of the one-hour TV show trying to re-write a line in the song that went “Everyone around the world, every boy and every girl” because Ricky Martin felt it was “too simple”. Mind you, the chorus line “vida buena – buena vida..ooaah…eh eh…” is at such a high level of eloquence, how could you ever hope to match it… After hours of deliberation they changed it to “Everyone across the world: man and woman, boy and girl”. Much better, Ricky Martin)

…I’m rambling…

2. I got a lovely packed lunch from this little organic shop, but I didn’t check the price tag and ended up paying $12 for it – it was rice, tofu and vegetables. Delicious, but overpriced. I’m not going to lie – it pissed me off. Let’s hope it was some kind of super-nutritious-omega-3-superfood-organic rice.

3. (happened this morning not yesterday) Woke up at 5.30 am and couldn’t go back to sleep. How cruel is it that I wake up half an hour before my usual wake-up time on a Saturday. Ugh! Guess what – it pissed me off.

So yeah…to summarize my list: WHINE, WHINGE, MOAN.

What does your list look like? If yours is all “Had a picnic up a hill; Enjoyed a lovely meal; Managed to meet up with my wonderful friends” – Congrats! You seem to be a nice person.

If your list looks more like mine: Hello there, fellow grump!

But hey, don’t feel bad. Embrace the grump-hood. Because, guess what, it is actually more common for people to remember negative rather than positive events.

Why? Well, our brains are just built that way.

In 1998, John Cacioppo, Ph.D, set out to study how the human brain processes negative and positive stimuli. He did this by showing a test group different types of pictures: ones that are known to evoke positive feelings (food, landscapes, etc…), ones that are known to produce neutral feelings (furniture, objects…), and lastly pictures that were known to provoke negative feelings (roadkill, injuries, death, etc). The results showed that activity in the cerebral cortex (that’s somewhere in your brain) was much more stimulated by negative emotions.

And if you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, it only makes sense. Back when our ancestors inhabited caves, we had to learn fast. Survival meant learning from your mistakes and processing information connected to negative experiences. I’m sure when poppa caveman sat down with his kids, he wasn’t  like “Hey kids, I ate some wonderful leaves today…they sure did give me explosive diarrhoea but who cares the world is a beautiful place, so you should all try them”.

Baumeister at al (2001) go on to say:

…it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes. A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad out- come) even once may end up maimed or dead.

So actually, our brain is actually trying to protect us from ending up getting eaten or injured. Nevertheless, the days of being chased by saber-toothed tigers are done and dusted. Instead you’re probably just trying to go about your day, maybe at a boring desk job, living a pretty safe adult-life. Thanks, brain. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In fact, there’s a whole region in your brain constantly anticipating crap to happen. The amygdala (humans have two of these almond-shaped regions in their brains) uses about two-thirds of its neurones just to look for bad news. Once it finds the slightest, little bad thing it rejoices about having done its job, and stores it immediately in your memory. Interestingly enough, it’s much harder for us to remember positive things. You need to be aware of positive feelings or events for at least 12 seconds or more to transfer them to your long-term memory (Hanson, 2010). I guess, that’s why it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the little things in life.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called “negativity bias”, according to which people are more likely to make decisions based on avoiding negative experiences (Baumeister et al).

Thinking about our little experiment at the beginning of this post, it now makes sense that I only recalled negative events (apart from the Ricky-Martin-show which did last longer than 12 seconds…). Since we spend so much energy on processing negative feelings, it’s only logical that we dwell on our mistakes and frustrations. However, there is a danger of internalizing negativity.

But, can we get around this?

Well, there are two approaches here.

1) The “Think Positive” approach: YES, WE CAN.

2) The “Embrace your Negativity” approach: JUST DEAL WITH IT.

The “Think Positive” approach says that if you practice mindfulness and highlight positives, you may be able to re-wire your brain, especially by focusing on optimism and gratitude.

And, being positive isn’t all bad. Barbara Fredrickson, a happiness researcher at the University of North Carolina, argues that positive feelings and emotion help us to reduce stress (duh), as well as broaden our scope of attention, cognition and action.

Moreover, positive thinking can enhance our happiness and satisfaction with life (another duh, I guess). This is because positive emotions, although fleeting, can lead to upward spirals in mood and behaviour. Positive psychology, a nascent field in psychology, is contributing research into what makes people happy, and how to make communities and individuals more resilient through positivity.

Approach #2, which I’ve dubbed “Embrace Your Negativity”, raises some concerns over whether it’s actually good to force yourself to think positively because it is not natural. We don’t “need” positive thinking for survival, and we apparently make bad decisions if we don’t get scared by all the stuff that could possibly go wrong. In a nutshell, this approach says that “faking it” can make things a lot worse. We are all grumpy, miserable gits – get on with it.

But, there is a way to bridge these two approaches: As humans, we tend to overanalyse and over-think. So, while there may be a kernel of truth to negative feelings (“I’m unhappy in my job”), our brains tend to blow things way out of proportion. What’s more, we tend to construct our individual realities around negative experiences (“I will never get my dream job”). Are things perfect? Probably not. Are you worthless/sad/crappy (insert whichever adjective of doom and gloom is most fitting in your situation)? Probably not.

If positive thinking doesn’t do it for you, maybe realist thinking does.

In one of my favourite  video productions of last year, This is Water, the late (and great) David Foster Wallace argues that negativity bias often comes down to an inherent and unconscious belief that the world revolves around our individual selves and our own frustrations. But, he also points out that it is entirely your own choice of how you look at things if you practice self-awareness.

“…If I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable…most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose … what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down…Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

If you haven’t seen “This is Water” yet, check it out here. It is one of those videos that instantly puts me in a good mood. Besides Ricky Martin’s Vida, obviously.


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