Look for the gorillas


My son has taken to complaining about going to school every day. Every day. Finally, after my ears started bleeding on the umpteenth day, I broke the news to him: there will always be things you have to do that you don’t want to do. Life will always disappoint if your expectations are unrealistic. If you go to school expecting it to be like a weekend full of tromping around in the woods and building with Legos, you are going to suffer needlessly.

However, I explained to him, there is a secret way to avoid being miserable, even when you are in situations you don’t like. In the spirit of the season, I’m sharing it with you now:

Once upon a time a team researchers devised an experiment. They had participants watch a video in which several people, some dressed in white, some dressed in black, moved around and passed basketballs between themselves. Participants were instructed to count how many times the people dressed in white passed the basketball. About midway through the clip, a man dressed in a gorilla costume walked from one side to the other, stopping in the middle to pound his chest before exiting stage left. The researchers found that a full half of participants, when asked, did not see the gorilla at all!  They were so focused on the people in white and the basketball that they were subject to “inattentional blindness.” You see what you focus your attention on; you see what you expect to see.

You’ve all no doubt heard the Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” If you think the world is a scary, unsafe place; or you think you hate your job; or you believe that something amazing is just around the corner – you are probably right. Our minds are amazingly adept at quickly creating and applying categories to our experience. Once we have labeled something as “bad” we are going to gather information to prove it. The more we practice labeling things as bad, the worse things will appear to be.

Rick Hanson wrote a book called Hardwiring Happiness on this topic. Not only do we know that our attention selects information based on our expectations, he says that our brains are predisposed to look for and file away the negative. It’s a good survival tactic, being vigilant for threat, but it doesn’t make for happy humans. His antidote is basically what I suggested to my son – look for the gorillas! Expect to see a “gorilla” of positivity hidden even in the midst of your stressful work week, in the most mind-numbing meeting, and, yes, even at school.

The happy news is that tiny bubbles of positivity pack quite a punch when we notice and savor them. Imagine this scenario: you are going into a standing meeting that has been a colossally mismanaged waste of everyone’s time. You are already irritable as you sit down. Experiences at your perceptual disposal include: (a) Charlie Chump is late as usual, (b) Bossy Becky interrupted you three times, (c) the room is hot and honestly sort of stinky, (d) Friendly Fred made a point of asking for your opinion on a specific agenda point, (e) Earnest Emily generously offered to take a task off your plate because she knows you have a lot going on, and (f) the catered lunch included these amazing little cheese puff things. All of these things actually happened. But which will you remember when you leave the meeting? Which will leave their residue on your emotional state? The ones you notice and feed with your attention.

The Buddha said, “Life is suffering” – but maybe it doesn’t have to be. There is good and bad out there – it’s called the whole of objective reality. What parts are you going to focus on? And while I’m not suggesting we all transform into a bunch of pollyannas, it’s no less true to emphasize the positive than it is to focus on the negative. Not that it’s easy. Our own brains conspire to suck us into negative emotional spirals and pity parties. But through the practice of mindful attention to our thoughts and reactions, we can consciously choose our focus and reactions.

Even if the only thing you can find to be grateful for is an ambiguous cheese pastry, savor it and let it buoy you to the next moment. Learning to see the good isn’t just important for our own lived experience. Emotional contagion is a real phenomenon. If you are a leader or manager and you are miserable, chances are, so is everyone who works with you! When you “take in” Emily’s generous offer and extend a genuine thanks, the warm fuzzies are amplified. When you recognize Fred’s nod of respect, you are more likely to return the regard. So much that drives effectiveness and engagement at work relates to these issues of connection, trust, and respect. And those qualities are hard to cultivate when everyone is grumpy.

So, for everyone’s sake, look for the gorillas hidden in plain sight.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” —Aristotle

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” –Frederick Koenig 

“People love others not for who they are but for how they make them feel.” –Irwin Federman


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