I’ve been thinking about a couple of favorite, though very diverse, literary characters in relation to my own outlook on life—Eeyore and Mr. Micawber. Eeyore, as you probably recall, is the donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh, who is prone to a gloomy take on things.
He’s the polar opposite of the optimistic Mr. Micawber from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Mr. Micawber answers every self-made crisis in his disaster-filled life with the confident, cheerful assertion: “Something will turn up!”
I’d like to be on Team Micawber, but I definitely come down more on the Eeyore side, more inclined to anticipate failure or frustration than happy outcomes. Even when things turn out well, I usually have a “yes, but” qualifier to contribute, designed to tamp down any feelings of irrational exuberance.
“Great, you got a second interview for the job!”
Yes, but they’ll probably hire the internal candidate.
“Yay! we raised enough money to fund the project!”
Yes, but it’s going to be really hard to find volunteers.
“Wonderful, your book has over 1,000 positive reviews!”
Yes, but there are twelve that say it’s boring and stupid.
No wonder I’m such a hit at parties.
But I discovered that I’m not alone. It turns out that the human brain is wired to anticipate and hold onto negativity. The amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons deep in the mid-brain, is a key player in directing our feet to the darker side of the street. It devotes 2/3 of its neurons to negative emotions like fear and anxiety. To make things worse, negative feelings tend to stick around a lot longer than positive emotions. Psychologist Rick Hanson explains it this way on his website, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”
So, the way we respond to events in our lives is rarely strictly rationale, often not positive, and always connected to the emotional memories stored from previous unhappy encounters with people, places and things. Now that’s pretty depressing
However, I did also learn it’s possible to fit more upbeat emotional memories in, even though our brains are biased toward holding onto the negative. And it isn’t very hard.
Dr. Hanson’s suggestion is to focus on one of the small, good experiences we all have in a day—a perfectly toasted piece of bread, a gorgeous sunset, the sound of a bird singing. Anything that gives you a happy little lift. Hold it in your mind for at least 20 or 30 seconds. Really think about it and relive the small gift of gladness it gave you.
That little focused pause in your day will give your neurons time to fire off and hardwire a new memory with pleasurable emotional content. In theory, according to Dr. Hanson, if you do it often enough, you’ll build a network of happy emotional responses that diminish the Eeyore effect, and instead invoke the sunnier outlook of Mr. Micawber. For whom, fans of David Copperfield will remember, something very good ultimately did turn up.
It may work, it may not. That sentence proves that I’m still a recovering Eeyore–but then aren’t we all works in progress?