We all have days where we believe that the deck is stacked against us: the internet router stops working, your toast burns even though you haven’t touched the dial and the car has a flat, all before you’ve started to head to work.
These are akin to headwinds: wind which blows against you as you are trying to run forwards, obstacles which impede our progress to some extent.
The inverse of course are tailwinds: things which help us, assist us in our daily objectives. You wake up happy and full of energy, the toast comes out perfect, your favourite song is playing on the radio, etc.
Tail winds are the wind at our back as we’re running, making the task slightly easier.
And our brains suck at appreciating them.
We are hard wired to try and fix issues, so when a problem arises in our daily lives, we focus on it more than when things work perfectly, we have in mind a vision of how it *should* have worked and no way of fixing it.
In other words, the headwind seems like the stronger force.
Ask most people and they will feel resentful over something or other, feel that things are harder for themselves than it is for other people. I, LaRasa, fantastic magical uni-kitty get this too. My housemate has expressed similar sentiments, when he lives a life which allows him to work two days a week. In short: everyone does.
This is why rich people will tell you ‘money doesn’t bring happiness’: to them, their lives make them hard put upon. People with siblings will tell you that they had it harder than their brother or sister growing up.
This hypothesis, put forward by Tom Gilovich from Cornell University and Shai Davidai from The New School for Social Research explains why people think that their favourite sports team has a harder line up than others, why opposing teams feel like the deck is stacked against them, so they ‘self-handicap’.
Self handicapping is the tendency, before a contest, or a test, or a meeting, to claim that there is an obstacle to success. ‘We are a key player down’, ‘I didn’t study as hard as I should have’ or ‘the computer has been playing up’ are all examples of this. It’s all about setting up an obstacle which could hinder your ability to perform, and if you should succeed in the face of this adversity, all the better.
Turning it around.
So how do we combat this effect? How do we stop seeing ourselves as the victims of circumstance? How do we reconcile the fact that as much as the deck seems stacked against us, every other person out there feels the same?
The answer is surprisingly simple: gratitude.
Gratitude has often been a topic for religious folk, from priests to gurus, you will find people the world over telling you that you need to be grateful for stuff in order to receive the blessings of whatever deity they represent. It’s the kind of message that throughout my life I have laughed at and brushed off (though it should be noted that I am not great at thanking people for things and instead will get very self conscious).
But here’s the thing: the benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude are very real and is actually a growing area of research, because people who feel, express and cultivate gratitude: sleep better, see the doctor less, have reduced depressive symptoms…
What you have to read between those lines is that levels of gratitude correlate with a healthier life.
What we need to be mindful of is that when you typically ask people what they are grafted up for, they will list their family, friends, pets, etc, but will often miss the ‘invisibles’.
Invisibles are things which are easily ignored in our day to day lives: being thankful that we are alive in such a beautiful world, during a time period where we may actually see humans take the first steps towards spreading to other planets, being faced with opportunities to learn and grow as people, the fact that you and I are able to share this fascinating effect with each other, dear reader.
The point which I seem to debate with people way too often is this: we live, objectively, in the best time period so far. We are approaching equality slowly across the board, child mortality is down, we are technologically advancing in leaps and bounds.
So why are so many people so unhappy?
This is a big question in an area of research called hedonic studies, which is the study of judgment decisions which we make to advance our physical and psychological wellbeing. The main question being ‘how good of a job do we do with that and how can we advance our wellbeing more?’
It studies emotions which arise from these decisions; regret, gratitude, etc, and it gave rise to a principle known as the ‘hedonic treadmill’.
The hedonic treadmill is the tendency for people to return to their base line happiness level despite strong positive or negative life events.
As a person earns more money, for example, their spending tends to rise to meet that new level (which is why it is so hard for people to learn how to save up money once they are in the habit of living pay check to pay check). The expectation and demand on them rises in tandem, resulting in no overall gain in happiness.
The treadmill is an analogy for someone who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place, but as things speed up and slow down, they have to work harder or slow down to maintain that state.
So if gratitude is such a strong positive, why aren’t we all chasing it all day every day? The answer’s an interesting one: we are biologically programmed to pay attention to the barriers in front of us. The problems we have to overcome, the puzzles we need to solve. We don’t have to pay attention to the things which boost us along, and this difference in how our minds allocate attention to positives and negatives means that it is easier to summon negative emotions than positive ones.
Take habituation for example: many of us believe that if we won the lottery, we would be happier and wouldn’t worry about the small things any more, but the reality of the situation is that we adapt and return to our baseline.
Greed as well: focusing on the idea that what we have is not enough, doesn’t make us happy, forces us to focus on accumulation and makes it harder to take stock of what we already have. Being poly, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw jealousy and envy in there, right?
So we circle around to the question of ‘how do we combat this? How do we rise above our programming and resist this urge to see ourselves as victims of constant headwinds?
‘Knowledge will set you free’
The first step is always to arm yourself with knowledge. It is only by knowing that we are prone to these things that we can truly start to combat them.
I guess though that if you are this far into the article that that requirement has been met, so step two: fighting confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is where someone is looking for a particular answer to a question and so they will only look for things which point towards that answer. This is the reason why we can find multiple studies which give opposing conclusions. The way to fight this is to try to find evidence to the contrary: consider what evidence supports you, and what evidence contradicts you.
Step three: focus on the things which you have to be grateful for.
This one can be difficult, but it’s what gratitude researchers and advocates suggest. Start writing them down and tracking them.
And when you start to run out of things, shift your frame of reference. Switch from things that you are grateful for to recognising the tail winds. “What are the ways in which I am being boosted along? The invisible things which make my life easier?”
The aim here is to gradually, over time, change the baseline for your happiness, by realising all the small things in life which help you out.
And I’ll start with this: I’m grateful for all the people who have been helping me through the past few difficult weeks.
If you would like to make my life a little easier, please consider donating to the Patreon fund. It’s all slowly building up and will be used to start building a business, so every dollar (they don’t work in pounds) helps.
Speaking of the business, I’m doing some market research on whether people would be interested in a subscription box for sexy essentials such as condoms and lube, so if you haven’t already, please do consider filling it out.
And with that, I shall sign off.
P.s: I need this teeshirt.