I’ve been thinking about a couple of favorite, though very diverse literary characters today in relation to my own outlook on life—Eeyore and Mr. Micawber. Eeyore is the old donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh, who is prone to a gloomy take on things. As when he responds to a cheery good morning from the irrepressible Pooh bear:
“If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
He’s the polar opposite of 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 definitely come down more on the Eeyore side. Though I’d like to be on Team Micawber. I admire positive thinking and its power to motivate, sustain and even to affect outcomes for the better. Hey, I rooted for the 1980 US Olympic hockey team; I cheered when Erin Brockovich prevailed, and I learned to believe from my daughter’s obsession with Dirty Dancing that nobody puts Baby in the corner.
Still, I often find myself focusing on the negative things in life, anticipating failure or frustration before they happen. If by chance things do 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 100 positive reviews!”
Yes, but there are five that say my book is 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 processes and stores the emotional content of experiences and devotes 2/3 of its neurons to negative emotions like fear and anxiety, which tend to stick around a lot longer than positive feelings, which dissipate pretty quickly. Psychologist Rick Hanson explains it this way on his website, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”
Which means that 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, courtesy of Dr. Hanson’s website, that all is not lost. See, positive thinking already!
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 if you do it enough, you’ll build a network of joyful emotional responses that diminish the Eeyore effect, and instead invoke the sunnier outlook of Mr. Micawber. For whom, incidentally, something very good ultimately did turn up.
It may work, it may not. Which sentence proves that I’m still a recovering Eeyore–but then aren’t we all works in progress?