My dad was born during the Great Depression in Cumberland, near Courtney and Comox on Vancouver Island. He lost his father in early childhood, and his mother was left with six children to raise on her own. Though she was uneducated, my dad remembers her as being very good with her hands, a skilled chef and seamstress. She managed to make ends meet and raise each of her children to be independent.
My dad worked throughout his childhood to support his family, finished school, studied automechanics and worked at Vancouver Motors downtown. He saved enough to go to university. When he talks about his childhood, he never complains about the prejudice he endured or the hardship his family suffered. He talks about wonderful life experiences, his lifelong friends and the kindness of so many people along the way.
He told me of one bachelor in his hometown who – whenever he saw poor children who had worn out or outgrown their shoes – would buy them new ones. I wonder if people so moved by the spirit of generosity realize the power of their acts to inspire gratitude and further acts of kindness for generations to come.
I have heard others who have come from a place of poverty, misfortune, loss and mistreatment tell quite different stories in which they remain victims; they are left with feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger or resentment.
The human brain has evolved to have a negativity bias. The negatives in our environment stand out and are remembered best. This was important for the survival of our species – to quickly recognize danger and learn from bad experiences. But in modern times, it fosters anxiety, depression and interpersonal resentment.
My father’s gracious approach to life may be the best fix for our natural negativity bias. Psychologists tell us that in order to balance out our brains’ negativity bias, we have to think of five positive observations to balance out one negative – just to come out even. So the way out of a bad mood (the natural end result of the negativity bias unchecked) is to actively search for the positive in our lives.
This is especially true in our relationships. If your boss or coworker has a habit that irritates you to no end (such as leaving his dishes in the sink at the end of the day for someone else to clean up), you may be able to give some constructive feedback and encourage behavioural change – or you might not. If you can’t change the situation – and you can’t leave it, you can reframe it. Think of five qualities in the other person that you like or admire. You might feel less irritable and may even work even better together.
Seeking – and expressing – the positive you see in others is even more important at home. As a parent, it’s so easy to tell our kids what they’re doing wrong or what we want them to do. If we don’t balance our words with appropriate praise or appreciation, not only will we feel more negatively towards our kids but they will see us as the constant complainers that we are. We will also be reinforcing negative self-talk that our children will carry into their adult lives.
For every negative comment to your child or partner, express five positive qualities that you appreciate. By actively searching for the positive, through the power of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to rewire itself by practising new habits of thought, you will see the best in others more easily. You can transform the atmosphere in your home. You will be happier and so will everyone else.
When we are thankful, we are happier. When we express thankfulness, those we appreciate are happier.
I raised my own kids to begin and end each day with a prayer of thankfulness for the blessings of life and the gifts of the day. With an attitude of gratitude, they would begin each day with their cups half full and by day’s end, their cups would overflow
Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in the Burnaby Now and Vancouver Courier.