I’ve worked with a couple of groups this week where I’ve started the session with a similar question and as soon as I’ve asked it there have been knowing looks and nodding heads. We, as a society and as individuals, are conditioned to focus on the bad stuff in life. You only have to look at the news on television for a couple of minutes to prove the point. But why should this be?
I’m guessing we all know of someone who is always capable of seeing the good in things wherever they look, and conversely, we all know of someone who continually complains. Both would say the other is not living in the real world. Most of us I reckon fall, most of the time, somewhere in between.
I’ve decided to coin the phrase ‘Dragons and Daffodils’ – daft, I know, and it reminds me of the name of the documentary about Elton John. But it’s in my head now and it’s there to serve a purpose.
Dragons = provide us with stress and anxiety
Daffodils = something simple that can help lift our spirits
We spend much of our lives focusing on the threats from the demon dragons when in reality we’re missing all the daffodils that are right under our noses.
There’s a scientific reason for this. And sometimes, when we know the reason for things, it can help us to deal with them.
Evolution may well be to blame for this one. The struggle for survival and all that.
Dragons obviously have to be kept an eye on. When you’re focusing on the dragons, you know the daffodils are there but they’ll still be there for you to enjoy tomorrow. However, if you take your eye off the dragons then they can eat you and you won’t be here to see the daffodils tomorrow. Simple. That’s why we tend to focus on the dragons in our lives for a huge amount of time. There’s always tomorrow for the daffodils.
Not only that but our brains have evolved in such a way that we like to think we can outwit the dragons using cunning, manipulation, imagination, planning – our brains have evolved to keep us safe. So if they see a perceived threat, no matter what it is, they keep us thinking about the same threat over and over again until a solution is found. Our imaginations can even make up dragons for us! Isn’t that great?!
You see, evolution doesn’t care whether we’re happy or not. It just cares about whether we survive.
Have you ever been in a stressful situation where you’ve found yourself being incapable of enjoying any of the good things in life (even though you know they’re there) until the anxiety has passed? There’s always tomorrow for the daffodils.
The trouble is that often, in today’s world, the dragons (of all shapes, sizes and colours) are always there – whether they’re ‘real’ dragons in the form of mortgages, illness, heavy workloads, deadlines… or made-up dragons in the form of imaginary conversations that don’t go well, imaginary outcomes of situations that will take place in the future, imaginary opinions that we think others have of us…
I’ve mentioned a thing called neuroplasticity a couple of times before. This is the process by which we may be able to change the very structure of our brains by focusing our attention in a particular way.
Neuroscientists have already proved that areas of the brain can increase or decrease in size, depending on how much we use them. For example, a concert pianist who has spent many years perfecting their art may have certain parts of the brain (those responsible for creativity, hand/eye co-ordination, recognition of pitch and tone etc) that have grown much larger than those found in the average person who is able to pass off ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano in the front room . Likewise, it has been proved that Buddhist monks who meditate for hours on end, day after day after day have increased brain mass in the areas responsible for calmness, compassion and humility. What people dedicate their time and attention to, whoever they are, will affect their brains.
So, all those positive thinking people in your lives have simply harnessed the power to be able to hook on to all that’s good in life – and their brains have changed as a result, almost providing a self-fulfilling prophesy – their brains have evolved to expect to experience positive things. And as a result they often will. And likewise, all those negative thinking people in your lives have simply harnessed the power to be able to hook on to all that’s negative in life – and their brains have changed as a result, again providing a self-fulfilling prophesy – their brains have evolved to expect to experience the negative things. And as a result they often will. And as I said before, most of us lie somewhere in between.
So, a focused attention may help to change the very structure of our brains and ultimately the way we perceive the world.
You can start right now. Just begin to notice the small things in life that you could be enjoying – the sound of birds outside the window, the feel of the sunshine on your face, the smile from a friend, a good programme on the television, even simply recognising the fact that you can read this right now. The more you train your brain to actively seek out things that are positive, the more you’ll begin noticing positive experiences, positive situations, and positive people. In other words, the way you perceive life will be more positive.
Also begin to notice all the times that your attention is swept away by the threat of the dragons (whether they’re actually there at that moment in time or not). Evolution will try and trick you that you don’t have a choice: focus on the negative stuff in order to survive. And that’s when you can be mindful that it doesn't always have to be that way...