By Dr. Jim Ferguson
I was ready for a new year. But, as I watched the descending ball in Times Square usher in baby 2020, I asked myself, will things be any different after midnight December 31 than before?
My wife has a motto, “Attitude is a choice; choose a good one.” Perhaps if we focus on our blessings this year, rather than whining about what we don’t have, things can be different and we can be happier. An article in the Wall Street Journal (December 27, 2019) got me thinking about a new attitude for a New Year.
The article introduced me to the recently described psychology term “negativity effect.” By analogy, I find that negative people are downers, and most of us gravitate towards happy people. I’ve always heard it said it takes five positive actions or comments to overcome a negative interaction. Research has now measured this phenomenon and found a four to one ratio, affirming that negatives affect us more than positives.
Why does “our brain [seem to have] a negativity bias?” Why does criticism affect us more than praise? Researchers speculate that this proclivity might have genetic origins and ancient survival benefit. As an example, newborn monkeys are terrified by snake-like shapes. Perhaps our ancestors learned of dangers passed on as genetic memories. There is survival benefit avoiding poisonous plants and snakes. (Avoidance of skunks just makes sense!)
These days, “we’re assailed by merchants of bad.” Journalism has devolved into a cesspool of manipulative fake news. Politicians seemingly always lie. However, if we recognize their ploys, perhaps we can take the highroad and avoid their traps.
Interestingly, as researchers studied the “positivity ratio” of good verses bad events/emotions, they found that older people were more contented than youth, perhaps because they have “learned how to improve the good/bad ratio in their lives.”
I like the practical strategies for the New Year listed in the Wall Street Journal article. “First, do no harm.” Actually, this is an ancient admonition known as ahimsa. In business you should work to please the customer and in medicine you must truly care about your patients. (However, I was once advised by a colleague that it was not healthy for me to care more for my patients than they cared about their own health.) Jesus redesigned the ancient adage of not harming others with the positive Golden Rule. The take home message in human psychology research is that negatives in relationships and marriage are more powerful than positives and must be avoided.
Secondly, “Remember [this] rule of four.” As a practical adage, be kind and service oriented to avoid angry customers, whom market researchers refer to as “terrorists” who post negative online reviews. And regularly tell those you love that you love them! Jesus said you will be blessed when you actively love instead of being negative or hating.
A friend of mine writes beautiful letters and sends her missives by snail mail. Written notes are wonderful and certainly garner special attention in our fast-paced modern world. But email and electronic messaging are at our fingertips and readily available to show appreciation. It’s a shame that we do not encourage each other more.
Jesus said we will always have troubles in life. The Apostle Paul (no shoddy philosopher) said we can use difficulties and failures as opportunities to persevere and build character as a prayerful gateway to hope. Children must also learn the lesson of perseverance when not succeeding, just as they must learn to tie their own shoes.
Thirdly, share good news with others, and be receptive when friends joyfully share their triumphs with you. Remembering and sharing good times with others is healthy and builds community. The 1973 movie The Way We Were demonstrates this point. Perhaps older persons are happier because they have learned to “savor good memories instead of obsessing” about the latest news reports of carnage and human failure or “wars and rumors of war.”
Lastly, “focus on the big picture.” Perhaps one causality is our success. We worry about when the bubble will burst. Western Civilization has produced the most affluent and educated culture in history. “Global poverty has declined by two thirds in recent decades.” Yet “International surveys reveal the rich to be the most pessimistic.” The internet is available to most through computers or our smartphones. So why are so many duped by the “nattering nabobs of negativity?” Use this marvelous tool guided by common sense to become better informed, instead of succumbing to negative media indoctrination. Or, turn off the news all together and listen to your conscience guided by the Spirit.
In my opinion, The Wall Street Journal story omits one crucial factor in the essay, For the New Year, Say No to Negativity. Finding purpose in life is crucial to successful living and happiness. In 1943 Abraham Maslow published his sentinel paper on the human hierarchy of needs. Once the physiological necessities of food and shelter are met, humans can then focus on psychological needs such as belonging, self-esteem and love. At the hierarchical apex is self-fulfillment called “self-actualization.” Maslow said it is here that a person’s creative activity and full potential can be realized.
Unfortunately, post-modern man and science have overlooked the foundational pathway to happiness. Psychological well-being cannot be achieved by power, party or prestige. And these are inadequate to advance man’s rise to full potential. The answer to man’s ennui and his search for purpose is found in Luke 10:27 and 1 Corinthians 13:13. I challenge you to read, reflect on and internalize this wisdom of the ages.
Man is an inquisitive creature, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” However, we can only achieve our full potential when our purpose is first “loving God,” and then “our neighbors as ourselves.”
So, choose the Way, and a good attitude, for the rest of your days.