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Looking on the Bright Side

At the end of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, they have fun with the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It includes these lyrics: “If life seems jolly rotten,/ There's something you've forgotten,/ And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that these past couple of weeks, as well as Shawn Achor’s suggestion in The Happiness Advantage to create a positive Tetris Effect. Because finding the bright side has been something of a challenge.

But I’m trying, so instead of complaining about the negative things, let me first explain the Tetris Effect, and then see about the bright side.

What’s the Tetris Effect?

Some of you may be familiar with the video game Tetris. But in case not, this is simply a game where geometric shapes fall from the top of the screen, and you try to maneuver them so they fit into gaps at the bottom to create a solid line. Rinse and repeat.

This doesn’t have a ton of application in real life unless perhaps you’re a professional mover trying to fit boxes in a defined space. But the funny thing is, if you play Tetris long enough, you might start trying to apply it outside of the game. For example, you might look at a line of buildings and picture flipping them around so they fit together.

Turns out that carrying this over into the real world is called a “cognitive afterimage.” (p.89) As Shawn Achor explains, the consistent play actually creates new neural pathways. The result? People get trapped in certain patterns of behavior or thinking. (p. 90)

And this doesn’t only apply to playing Tetris or other games. If you spend your day looking for problems as part of your work, you’re likely to bring it home with you. Achor explains that lawyers are prone to this, and accountants often scan their lives for errors as if it were a tax audit. (p. 92)

Unfortunately, in situations like this, you usually find what you’re looking for. So if you’re searching for something wrong, you’ll succeed.

The other part of the problem is that you often don’t see what you’re not looking for, in what’s called “inattentional blindness.” (p. 96) People who look for the bad can be so focused on finding it that they completely overlook the good.

But – this works both ways. You can also train yourself to look for the good things and create new neural pathways for a Positive Tetris Effect. (p. 97)

Retraining your brain

So, how do you get this positive focus? Achor makes these suggestions:

  • Daily list: Keep a daily list of good things in your life, both personal and professional. They don’t have to be profound, but they should be specific. So you wouldn’t say something general, like “I love my kids,” but rather, “I loved the big hug my son gave me this morning.” Things like that.

  • Journal about positive experiences: Write about something good that happened for at least 20 minutes. Again, go into detail and essentially relive that experience. Let it really sink in and absorb it.

  • Wear rose-tinted glasses: This isn’t the same as wearing rose-colored glasses because let’s face it – life isn’t always rosy. And ignoring real problems will backfire. Rather, Achor suggests giving priority to the good, even in difficult situations, so you can be a “reasonable optimist.” (p. 104)

How does this help with mindful eating?

Many people who struggle with their relationship to food are perfectionists, which to me seems like wearing gray-colored glasses. It drains the color from everything because when you’re a perfectionist, you can never be good enough.

That kind of thinking also puts you in a negative Tetris Effect, where you’re constantly looking for the things you did wrong – and you miss what you did well.

So to me, this idea of being a reasonable optimist and going for the Positive Tetris Effect works beautifully in mindful eating.

Consider journaling for 20 minutes about a great meal you had. You’d only be able to do that if you were being mindful to begin with. And then you’d get to experience it twice!

Or imagine viewing your food choices as a realistic optimist, where you keep that focus on the positive. Instead of only seeing instances where you ate more than you needed or a food that didn’t agree with you or while sitting at the computer, you’d also see the other things. How much you actually enjoyed the cake. When you made time to prepare food you that nourishes you. The occasions when you left food on the plate because you realized you weren’t hungry.

It could make a real difference.

How I’ve been using this

Of course, starting this isn’t easy. Many of us – myself included – have been so immersed in the negative Tetris Effect that it’s hard to imagine anything different. What do you mean I shouldn’t focus on the bitter cold and stormy weather of winter, and how that makes my life harder? Or the inefficiencies I see at work? Or when those I care about get sick?

And the past week has not been an easy one to start changing this. I have to admit that being positive wasn’t my first thought when my cat Osiris suddenly couldn’t stand on January 9, which was also the anniversary of my mom’s death.

Yet in reality, I can find a lot of positives. The fact that I was home when it happened – if it had been 4 days later, I’d have been in California on a work trip. Then the vet had an opening only half an hour later, and their office is just a mile away. My job allows me to work from home, so I could spend the next day watching Osiris. I also have the financial resources to cover the tests and vet visits and medication (turns out he has hyperthyroidism).

And my personal favorite – this got me out of going on that work trip to California, which I hadn't been looking forward to. (Although even there I was trying to find something good, so I’d been planning a visit to the Museum of Ice Cream. Another time.)

It’s been stressful watching Osiris, but I remind myself to focus on the improvements each day. He’s doing much better, as you can see with him enjoying boxes again.

And I’ve been thinking about how incredibly lucky I am to still have my two cats at such advanced years. Yes, they need some extra care and medication, but they’re so worth it. Especially when I think about all the pets I lost during my childhood, many to cars but also to illness. None of those cats even approached the ages of my current ones.

And I have to say this rose-tinted approach helps. It doesn’t magically make everything better, but when I remind myself to look for the positives, they start popping up. Like being able to see the sunrise over Portland Harbor some mornings from work. The invigorating feel of brisk winter air in my lungs. Patterns of frost on my car. The pure beauty of a landscape transformed by new snow.

What about you? Can you find some overlooked positives in your life? I’d love to hear them.

As for me, I’m off to pat the cats.

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