Our brains are Velcro for negative thoughts, Teflon for positive. Evolution has wired us that way. Nightly news producers know it, which is why, out of a million commuters, you only hear about the ones who don’t get home safely. Our city functions as a miracle of co-ordinated social and economic activity but we hear about the cases of violence.
There’s a good evolutionary reason for our predisposition to focus on problems. Our prehistoric ancestors needed to think ahead, to worry about the coming winter, rival tribes or the next hunt. They had to sharpen their spears and their wits. Those who paid too much attention to the bright side may not have survived to pass along their genes.
In modern times (at least in the developed world) our issues aren’t about basic survival. Attention to problems can motivates us to improve our lives, when done in small doses. But a preoccupation with your problems can trigger the “fight-or-flight” reaction, which prepares your body for action by shutting down the creative, problem-solving region of your brain.
Dwelling on the negative is riskiest in intimate relationships. When you zero in on the part of your love life that is not going well, you may lose sight of your many blessings. As a family mediator I often work with spouses whose story of their past is dominated by what went wrong. Conflict saturates their memory, poisoning their appreciation for anything that remains positive.
Those painful events DID occur. He really WAS hurt by her inattention. She really IS wounded by his critical comments, and those issues deserve attention. But they aren’t the whole story. Problem-solving often loses sight of the positive qualities you offer one another. Whether your goal is to heal or end your relationship, you’ll both benefit by shifting attention from what’s broken to what works.
Whether you’re reflecting on the city, or your love life, you will be at your best with a buoyant appreciation for what’s going well. The realist sees the big picture. Not just the problems.