Your brain contains more than 100 billion neurons that flawlessly work together to create consciousness and thought. It is an astonishing marvel of evolution and adaptation, and it is also a huge dick.
What do we mean by that? Well, everyone wants to be happy, but the biggest obstacle to that is the mushy thing inside your skull that you think with. Evolution has left your brain with all sorts of mechanisms that are heavily biased toward misery. We can't guarantee that reading this article will help, for your brain is as crafty as it is sadistic. But at least you'll understand it better.
At some point in the last year you've spoken to a woman with supermodel looks who would not stop talking about how horrible it was that she had gained half a pound or had a faint pimple on her forehead. You realized that this was a person who somehow could look at her fashion-magazine face in the mirror and only see the pimple. It's so annoying -- why can't she just focus on the positive?
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Seconds after this photo, she started ringing the bell frantically and shouting, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"
But of course, we all do it to varying degrees -- you might pass 5,000 cars on your morning commute, and 4,999 of them might be perfect, polite drivers. But then you pass that one guy in the SUV who literally stuck his buttocks out of his side window and took a flying shit on your hood. When you get to work, are you going to talk about the 4,999 good drivers or the flying hood shitter? You're going to focus on the negative, because your brain is hardwired to devote more attention to the misery in life.
Researchers have found this in a laboratory setting: They can show participants pictures of angry and happy faces, and the participants will identify the angry faces much faster than the happy ones. How much faster, you ask? So fast, we answer, that the participants had no conscious recollection of ever seeing the faces. That's right -- your brain already identified the shit parts of your day before you even knew it. You have a sixth sense for misery.
"Wait, my 'everything sucks' sense is tingling."
And that was a great ability to have back when evolution was deciding which of us would reproduce and which would get eaten -- we needed a brain tuned to spot threats. Giggling at the butterflies instead of running from the tiger puts you in the express lane through the tiger's intestinal tract. We focus on the negative because it's the negative shit that gets us killed -- there was no evolutionary advantage to stopping to smell the roses. But this has left us with a brain that not only devotes our attention to the bad stuff, but also makes us remember it a lot better. Think about the implications in your everyday life -- you can wind up walking away from a pretty good job or relationship because you only remember the bad times.
If there's a good side to it, the effect does seem to reverse as we get older, when nostalgia starts to set in and we focus more on the good memories. Unfortunately, for many of us the only effect of that seems to be that we can't stop talking about how freaking great things were back in our day.
"This is bullshit. They've whitewashed the neo-anarchist undertones that made the Ninja Turtles so meaningful."
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All right, you think, if negative thoughts are so powerful and make us so miserable, we'll just force ourselves to stop focusing on them. After all, we're conscious animals; we have control over our own brains. Now that we're aware of the problem, we just won't do it -- we'll look in the mirror and force ourselves to not think about the pimple.
Sure. First, let's try a really simple brain exercise:
Imagine a white bear humping another bear. Try to get a really clear picture of them in your mind. All right, now stop thinking of the humping bears. Use all of your powers of concentration to eliminate all traces of them from your mind. You shouldn't be seeing the white bears at all now, or their frantic thrusting, even when we repeat the words "humping white bears."
"... I should not have Googled that phrase while at work."
Did it work? Hell, no! In fact, the more you tried to not think about bear sex, the more you thought about it. This, unfortunately, is the same thing that happens when you try to force yourself to not think about the pimple in the mirror: Suppressing negative thoughts actually makes them stronger. You read that right. Negative thoughts are like the Sand People: If you chase them away, they'll come back in greater numbers.
"I'll be back! You haven't even begun to freak out about that elevator conversation!"
It's actually insane when you think about it -- we're constantly trying to banish bad thoughts from our mind, but the human brain simply doesn't have a mechanism for doing it. After all, the only way to know for sure that you are not thinking about horny white bears is by monitoring your thoughts and "scanning" them for any traces of them. So the process basically goes like this:
"Am I thinking about humping white bears?"
"Well, I wasn't, but now I am ..."
Psychologists call these ironic thought processes. They are the reason why you only want the stuff that you can't have, why trying to suppress laughter only makes you laugh more, why you fail at stuff when somebody is watching, and so on. Telling yourself not to be afraid of failure puts failure right at the center of your thoughts. It's the difference between overweight people who are always counting calories and rail-thin people who have to be reminded to eat at meal time because otherwise they just "forget to eat." The overweight dieters are constantly failing because staying under the calorie count requires them to do the one thing they should be avoiding: thinking about food.
"And over there we'll plant pizza trees far as the eye can see."
This is the cruel irony of people who are chronic worriers. Brain scans show that people who are constantly worrying about every little thing have much more active brains than other people ... but the extra energy is wasted. When worriers try to complete a task they worried about, they end up doing worse than non-worriers doing the same task. So much of their brain power is being used to try to foresee all the bad outcomes that they almost guarantee that one of those bad outcomes will occur.
Meanwhile, people who aren't concerned about what will happen can dedicate all their concentration to solving whatever problem is in front of them, meaning their chances of success are higher. That's right -- you could say that some people succeed purely because they're too dumb to know why they should fail.
Think about how much of our entertainment is based around negative emotions. Why do we like scary movies? Or sad songs? Why do we watch movies about disasters or obsessively follow morbid news stories about sensational murder trials? If something horrible happens to us, why do we find ourselves constantly thinking and talking about it?
"You weren't there! All that tanning lotion ... String cheese was everywhere ..."
If you were trying to come up with some kind of logical explanation, you could maybe say that it's because focusing on terrible things reminds us of how good we have it. But the science says that we actually take pleasure in the negative emotion itself. We willingly dive back into misery again and again for the same reason we willingly board a roller coaster or go bungee jumping: We get a rush from it. That is, the pleasure/reward centers of your brain light up and release dopamine. And you can get addicted to whatever causes your brain to release dopamine, whether it's chocolate or fistfights.
And just as with any addiction, there are some people who can handle it better than others -- we all respond differently. And what researchers are finding is that some people get addicted to grief.
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"Oh yeah, that's good grief ..."
They think this may be why some people can just pick up and move on after a trauma, while others never do. They just keep reliving it, refreshing that feeling over and over. Because of the jacked-up way your brain is wired, even the most horrible thing that's ever happened to you gave you a rush. Don't get us wrong -- that chronically grieving person you know isn't enjoying it, any more than the junkie "enjoys" being an addict. They just get trapped in a feedback loop because they're subconsciously afraid to let go of the one strong emotion that makes them feel alive.
And when it comes time to try to break us out of that cycle, something else comes into play, which is the fact that ...