Neutralising your negativity bias with gratitude

‘Paradoxically but wonderfully, focusing on someone else’s happiness will actually make you happier.’ — A.J. Jacobs

Author A.J. Jacobs was having dinner with his family. Although he’s not religious, he likes to say thank you at the start of each meal to the people who made it and produced the ingredients and to the soil, sun, rain, and so on.

His ten year-old son said to him, ‘Daddy, that’s really lame because those people can’t hear you.’

It got him thinking — what if I did thank everyone? What if that could be my next book?

He decided to find and thank a thousand people who in some way contributed to making his morning cup of coffee. He thanked the designers of the lid and the sleeve that stops you burning your hand, he met the bean growers in Colombia, the people who clean the water before it’s pumped in New York City, the engineers, biologists, goatherds, barista, bean roasters… And not only did he make a lot of people’s days, he also noticed how much happier it made him feel, and how much more connected he felt to the world.

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Thanking the bean growers

The book is called Thanks a Thousand.

Thanking the bean roasters

I felt so inspired by that. I often pause for a moment of gratitude before eatinxg, and it makes me feel good and enjoy the meal more, rather than just scoffing it down.

He talks about the importance of gratitude to counter the negativity bias that our brains are built with. Early humans who were most focused on threats and what might go wrong were more likely to survive. We can be grateful to our anxious ancestors that we’re here now, but it does mean we’ve inherited a brain that’s not designed for happiness.

If, for example, you receive a compliment and an insult in the same day, by the end of the day you’ll probably be mostly or only thinking about the insult.

Jacobs tries to counteract that tendency with gratitude. He suggests silently appreciating the times when the supermarket queue goes fast or when the lift does work, otherwise you can end up thinking, ‘I always choose the slowest queue!’ or ‘lifts always break on me!’ Because that’s what sticks in your memory.

There is a saying that our brains are like velcro for negative experience and teflon for positive ones.

I’ve been practising gratitude for years now. As well as doing it before eating, my girlfriend and I tell each other things we’re grateful for before we go to sleep, and I write down three things first thing in the morning. A friend and I also send each other WhatsApp voice messages of things we’re grateful for.

I have definitely noticed a greater tendency in myself to focus on what’s good rather than on problems. I also think doing it last thing at night helps my sleep, as a grateful mind is a peaceful mind. It has improved my relationships because I appreciate people more and express it (especially my parents), and it also helps me to remember what’s happened every day, rather than my life rushing past in a blur.

For the full list of ten strategies to be happier with gratitude, have a listen to this episode of the Tim Ferris podcast.

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