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A Middling Way to Beat the Negativity Bias

You might not become a lovely person, but at least you won't be horrible

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Do you want to be a lovely person?

Then entertain lovely thoughts.

I think it’s that simple. You don’t need to try to be a lovely person. You just need to train your brain to think lovely things.

I say it’s “simple,” not “easy.”

We come equipped with a strong negativity bias: negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones, so we naturally gravitate toward them.

You need to train your brain not to do that. “Weave a little nosegay” is how St. Francis de Sales phrased it. That’s a little too effeminate for me, but the great saint was spot on: think beautiful thoughts, smell lovely ideas.

You may or may not be what you eat, but you do become what you think.

It’s nothing you even notice. You’ll just find yourself being a better person if you continually (relentlessly, ruthlessly, aggressively) rip your mind away from negative thoughts and put it on positive ones.

That’s what I believe, anyway. It’s consistent with cutting-edge psychology and is a staple of Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

Positive Thoughts Can be Hard to Come By

Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve had a lot of success with it.

First off, I don’t have a lot of luck coming up with positive thoughts. You need the right kind of positive thoughts. They can’t be “positive” in the sense of, “Imagine me single-handedly stopping a school shooter with my fists, with the whole thing on videotape, then the video going viral and me going on the Tonight show to talk about it, and then beautiful women coming up to me . . . .”.

That’s just what the theologians call “vainglory,” which is a stupid thought train to build, second only to pornographic thoughts.

I’m really not sure what kind of positive thoughts one should have. The only positive thoughts that work for sure (based on my experience) are thoughts of thanks and appreciation. The process of being thankful opens up one’s worldview. Merely taking a stroll and noticing things, for instance, does wonders for one’s mental framework, which then makes a person better disposed throughout the rest of the day. That, I’ve experienced first-hand.

But otherwise? I’m not sure. I suppose one could ruminate about saints lives (there’s something about biography that “grabs” one’s mind) or scenes in the gospel, but now we’re treading more into the act of Catholic meditation, which is a great thing, but not the same thing as molding the parade of thoughts that go through one’s brain every (freakin’) waking moment of the day.

Try a More Modest Approach

I have, however, discovered one trick that works very well to keep your mind off negative things:

Think about something banal.

If your mind can’t be fixed on lovely things, it can be fixed on stupid things, which is better than letting it be fixed on negative things. You may not become a saint, but at least you won’t be a sonofabitch.

In my case, I think about gardening. Right now, in December, that’s a little difficult, but I mentally manage it. I’m mostly thinking about microgreens, how they might be grown for profit, how to turn over the growing medium to save money, etc. I also think about my worm farm and how best to let the worms completely ravage a bin and leave me with a microgreen growing medium (which needs to be very low in bacteria).

Etc. and etc. and etc.

I roll the thoughts over in my mind.

I’ve always done that. I might think about my blog or my diet or a new flower farm. I just think about something banal and ruminate on them. I always felt like an idiot doing it.

But it’s not idiotic. It’s not noble, to be sure, and it’s not elevating, but it’s a lot better than succumbing to the negativity bias. It’s better than thinking about that bastard who wronged you, or how the economy is going to crash and you’re going to lose everything in the stock market, or how that jackass neighbor is probably going to get a dog that barks all the time, or or or

Let’s face it: Your mind is going to think about something. It’s unavoidable. You need to give your mind a break occasionally, which is one reason that meditation is so valuable, and it’s crucial to give your brain serious exercise occasionally (I’ve become a big fan of 90-minute “deep work” sessions), but those things only occupy about two hours a day. Most people have 16 hours to occupy mentally.

That’s a lot of remaining time to harbor a lot of negative thoughts.

By all means, try giving thanks. Try appreciating things. Try thinking about the saints or whatever other positive thoughts you can come up with. I applaud you.

But if you’re like me and those positive thoughts aren’t always there, try a fallback position. Think about your stupid little hobby or some other stupid little thing.

It might be the mental world of the second-rate, but it beats dwelling in the mental world of the devils.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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