Most have heard the saying, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Coming off of a week of incredible good fortune, I began to wonder, “What happens when life hands you lemonade; a tall, ice-cold glass of the sweetest lemonade after being outdoors on the hottest day of the year?”
The tendency to overlook the positives and focus on the negatives appears to be a universal human trait. Consider the amount of time people spend complaining about one thing or another. Consider the amount of negativity reported in the news. Consider the popularity of television programs that emphasize conflict, chaos and discord.
What is it about human nature that compels us to see the glass as half empty so often? Interestingly there is an answer to that question. Rick Hanson, author of “Buddha’s Brain” refers to it as the “negativity bias”. Interestingly the negativity bias is perhaps what allowed me to be here to write this and you to be here reading it. It would appear this bias is the result of human evolution, resulting in a brain wired for heightened sensitivity to threat. As Hanson states, if you are walking through the forest and see an object in the distance, its best to assume it’s a snake, not a stick.
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.
The heightened awareness of the negative has us protecting ourselves from threat when there are no sticks or snakes around. It would also appear to compromise our ability to have the same physiological, cognitive and emotional responsiveness in the presence of good fortune.
Granted, if I won the lottery, that half empty glass would certainly not appear so empty anymore. Indeed, there are more mundane experiences of good fortune that shift our attention away from the negative but the tendency to return attention to what is wrong, lacking or potentially threatening is an evolutionary default position of sorts.
Past learning affords us stereotyped response patterns to daily events that require no conscious thought. These automatic responses provide a degree of efficiency in getting through the day but leave us with a glass-half-empty perception of life that lurks in the unconscious. Overcoming the negativity bias, which would allow greater awareness of the moments when life hands us lemonade, require de-activating our auto-pilot function and activating the mindfulness function.
Mindfulness has gained increasing attention in recent decades. The benefits of meditation, yoga and other awareness practices have been documented and enjoyed by increasing numbers who experience longer periods of joy and peace and overall improved functioning in their lives.
A simple daily practice of gratitude is helpful in combating the bias that keeps us focused on the negative. Gratitude practice shifts attention from what we lack to what we have. Attention directs the mind, the mind directs the body and the outcomes of our lives follow. Being more attuned to lemons, we often overlook or take for granted the moments when life offers the lemonade. Despite the default mechanisms of the brain, we are capable of intentioned, directed and focused activity that offer a more realistic perception of our experiences.
So, what do we do when life hands us lemonade instead of lemons? First, be mindful of the good fortune that has come. Second, allow time to experience what it feels like for things to work out or to have a win. Let the experience dwell in the mind and body and don’t take it for granted. It matters not how big or small the victory, just savor the taste. Finally, and most importantly, be thankful, grateful and appreciative.