If I could write a letter to my younger self with one piece of life advice, I’d say this:

  • When something is positive or helpful, give it a little more attention than you otherwise might. Make a little more room for it in your mind.
  • When something is negative or hurtful, spend a bit less time thinking about it than you normally would. Don’t linger on it so long.
  • You might be thinking about a negative thing in order to make it better: to solve a problem, extract a lesson, or convert a failure into an opportunity. In this case, the negative thing needs your attention if it is going to be changed. But even here, you can let the positive possibility lift you up a bit more. Don’t bind yourself so tightly to the negative situation’s downward-dragging weight.

If these guidelines are indeed a path to being happier, why are they so hard to follow?

One reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that we’re inclined to prioritize threats – not only real ones, but anything that seems like one. Chalk it up to the “survival instinct.”

A second reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that they are more talkative. When something’s bad, it gives us a lot to say, but when something’s good we don’t always feel the same urge to verbalize about it. Negative thoughts occupy our attention because they create more chatter.

I once attended a class where the participants were asked to go around in a circle and speak about something nice that had happened recently. It went fast. Each person took a moment to think, said a few words, and we moved on. “Good weather today." “Morning coffee smelled amazing.” “My dog came and licked my face.” “The Red Sox won.” “I got a raise.” And the circle was complete.

We were asked to go around the circle one more time, but now we had to mention something bad that had happened. It took much longer. Someone said their car broke down. “Battery went flat. But it had just been replaced last year. Mechanic needed a full hour to diagnose. What the heck was he doing? The bill was outrageous, had to argue. Finally got a discount but it took so long that I missed my son’s soccer game. Kid was so upset that he refused to do his homework and I had to have a call with the teacher…” And that was just the beginning of one person’s story.

If the first circle took a minute and felt a bit boring, the second circle took an animated twenty minutes and the instructor had to limit each participant’s time so the next person could get a chance.

Could it be that positive things are more pleasurable but negative things are more virally engaging, even when the scope of that virality is limited to the inside of a single mind?

Here’s a third reason why negative thoughts so often consume us: it’s simply that we lack control of our thoughts. Thoughts come into our mind and dominate us because we’ve never really learned the jujutsu to handle them. If we want to stop or redirect them we find that we can’t.

If you want to be happier, look on the bright side? Fine, but if it were easy to look on the bright side, you’d already be doing that.

Meditation can make it a little bit easier. Meditation can help us gain the kind of control over our thoughts that would allow us to follow the advice to “look on the bright side.”

Simply by learning to release our thoughts – to let them pass without attachment – to let them enter and leave our minds without our clinging to them or rushing to unpack them – we can develop the poise that might later help us take a positive perspective. Even if we practice the kind of meditation that seeks equanimity, calm, emptiness, an absence of thought – not the kind where we try to sustain our focus on a positive thing – the first kind will inevitably help with the second.

We can also notice the forces in our lives that steal our self-control, the routines that train us to be helpless pawns in the theater of own thoughts, and we can avoid those forces. 

For me, web browsing is such a force. For another person, it might be channel surfing with a TV remote. I find that web browsing is the opposite of meditating. It’s an uncannily precise opposite, as if you took meditation and simply reversed it.

Put me in front of a screen and I’ll click on links, scroll through social media feeds, check email, read news updates, all in search of some titillating nugget that will occupy my attention in a way that temporarily obscures my low-grade discontent. Since my discontent is never cured through this process, I’ll keep browsing, clicking, scrolling – growing ever more attached to the aimless pursuit. 

When I log off, the habit of browsing, clicking, scrolling, grasping for some elusive satisfaction… this habit is transferred to my thoughts themselves. I’ll entertain a thought, probably an anxious one, letting it suggest other anxious possibilities, which I then explore as if I were choosing the juiciest or most click-baity link on a website, following it to another “page” of thoughts that I’ll “scroll” through until one catches my attention. When I then try to take charge of my thoughts and focus on a topic of my choice, I’m not in shape for it. The muscle of concentration is weak. Maybe the topic is a positive one, maybe I’m trying to “look on the bright side,” but my ability to focus on any given thing, bright or dark, has been trained out of me. In spending so much time on the web, reading news and looking at people’s cat photos – harmless right? – it’s as if I’ve been rehearsing the process of anxious worry.

From this I conclude, if you want to be happier, look on the bright side. But if you want to be able to look on the bright side, spend more time meditating and less time browsing. ■

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