In the pursuit of happiness, we often find ourselves fixated on eliminating the negative thoughts and experiences we have in our lives. We cut out junk food, and make efforts to break unhelpful habits. We learn to set boundaries and protect ourselves from toxic people or unpleasant situations. We fight off our anxieties and look for ways to reduce our stress. We go into therapy to understand ourselves, and make strides in recovering from years of trauma or abuse. It can seem like we’ve done everything to ‘feel better’, but sometimes we find ourselves still feeling stuck.
For many of us, there’s been an attempt to remove all of the adverse thoughts and maladaptive behaviours because we believe that if we can just get rid of or reduce the problem, then what will be left is peace, happiness, and positivity. From a biological perspective, it makes sense why we tend to think this way. As a species, we focus way more on what’s wrong than we do on what’s ‘right’ in front of us.
This is because the human brain has evolved to have a fairly strong negativity bias. In order to survive, we had to pay more attention to negative experiences, thoughts, and emotions compared to positive ones. We had to remember which berries were poisonous and where the wolves hunted for their prey. We had to be quick in recognizing potential threats and pay attention to signs of danger around us. It’s better to be safe than to be sorry, afterall, and this bias served as an essential survival mechanism for those that came before us.
Not only do we remember negative events and emotions more strongly (based on a perception of potential threat), we learn more quickly from our mistakes than from what we got right. Learning best by trial and error as a ‘feature’ of human development has made us into the world’s best problem solvers. And while it’s essential to address challenges and hardships, unfortunately, focusing on what’s wrong all the time doesn’t bring us peace. It often just keeps us in a state of hypervigilance and discontent. In truth, we are not designed to be happy - we are designed to stay alive.
There’s no doubt - a lot of internal work has been done, and a lack of progress is not for lack of trying. But, perhaps finding pleasure in life has nothing to do with finally being able to eliminate all of our problems or all of the ‘bad’. I think maybe it has more to do with intentionally noticing the good. The reality is, if we want to overcome the negativity bias of the brain, we need to stop and smell the roses.
‘Practising joy’ can be a really foreign concept if you’ve never done it before, but starting small is good. Basking in the warmth of a heated blanket at night, watching cats do zoomies or dogs chase their tail, stopping during a walk to watch a bee dance on a brightly coloured flower, breathing in the aroma of a freshly made cup of coffee or tea. Anytime something makes you smile or sigh with content - take it in for a few moments longer. Allow yourself to be fully present, and savour it.
When we shift our attention to joy, we become more attuned to the positive aspects of our lives. This expanded awareness allows us to notice and appreciate simple pleasures that may have gone unnoticed before, and by actively seeking them out and taking time to fully experience them, it cultivates gratitude, which is associated with feelings of happiness and contentment. Those feelings won’t last forever, and they’re not meant to, but the meaning we derive from them will remain.
We are undeniably shaped by the sum of our experiences, good and bad, but by being intentional, we can create a reservoir of uplifting moments, playful encounters, and meaningful connections that act as a counterbalance to our biological inclinations. We’ll never be able to get rid of all of our problems - it’s an insurmountable goal, but by cultivating mindfulness and practising joy, we can find solace, inspiration, and the strength to navigate the trickiness in life that comes with being human.