By Jim Gillen
My first yoga class of the year is always a big one – as many as 50 people squeezing into a small space, each wanting to start off the new year right. Usually, I ask my students about their “resolutions.” This year, I asked a different question:
Reflecting on last year, what is it about your life that you love and would like to have more of?
Their faces lit up as they shared stories of loved ones, families and friends, travel, good food, times in nature and the joys of volunteering. Gone were the looks of guilt from years past when students recited their resolutions to lose weight, work less, save money, and the like.
Such a stark contrast shows how resolutions easily feel like another “should” in a life full of shoulds – a demand for more effort in a world already requiring so much from us. It can almost feel like a kind of self-aggression.
Our Negativity Bias
While it’s important to look at ourselves realistically and note what is not working, we can get stuck viewing ourselves and the world from a glass half-empty perspective. We do have an inborn “negativity bias,” after all. As psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hanson puts it, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.”
As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! “Once burned, twice shy.” So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.
So we need to practice focusing on the positives – hence, my New Year’s question. And as we noted earlier, the more we practice, the more we can widen our perspective on life’s experience. At the same time, we can bring into greater resolution – pun intended – those things that make life worth living, those things that bring us joy and motivate us.
What if this year, instead of focusing on deficiencies, declaring what we must do or change about ourselves, we cast our vision on what we want to spend our time doing? Instead of “I resolve to make more time for myself,” why not “How can I find more joy in my days?”
Crucially, any important, lasting change seldom comes all at once. Change is process. This wonderful video puts this into memorable perspective:
Yes, we can go further and commit to a worldview that puts today’s problems in the context of a larger hope. (Think of how far we have come with civil rights!) When we take a leap of faith for a greater truth or mission or love, we can focus on the things that really matter.