“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
We hear about how important gratitude is all the time and nowadays there are a million studies showing that various types of gratitude, from journaling to writing letters of thanks to friends, can have myriad positive effects on our daily lives. One of the great benefits of really practicing gratitude is that it can help us take advantage of “confirmation bias”, which is where we seek out and easily find evidence that confirms our theories and beliefs, rejecting or choosing to not notice that which does not confirm them. Whether you are focusing on feeling sorry for yourself or feeling gratitude, you will be able to find plenty of evidence to confirm either story – so why not choose gratitude?
Headwinds and Tailwinds
I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast and it gave me a lot to think about on this topic. The episode was called “Why is my life so hard?” and it looked into the bias we all have when perceiving our own challenges compared to those of others and how we can avoid this trap. Research shows that we all have a tendency to think the “other side” has it better off than we do, whether that’s a different profession, an opposing sports team, or other political parties. (If you’re super sciencey, you can check out some of the research here, in a paper called “The headwinds and tailwinds asymmetry”)
Now, it makes sense that we put more attention on our headwinds – they are things we have to overcome, that make what we are doing difficult, so we have to find ways to get through them and push past, whereas we may not notice as readily the tailwinds that are guiding us and making things easy. This is called “availability bias”: we put more weight on experiences that are readily available in our memories and challenges tend to stick out more to us than our successes.
Unfortunately, the research shows that thinking everyone else has it easier than we do also causes us to be more ok with morally questionable actions, from little white lies to shoplifting, because we feel like we’re the underdog and we deserve a break. Focusing on the idea that we have it harder than those around us allows us to feel like the world owes us something because we are so down on our luck, because we have so many obstacles to overcome.
This behavior acts in some ways as a defense mechanism. If we go into a difficult situation convinced that we have many obstacles to overcome, then it is no surprise if we fail. We can believe that it was the unfair disadvantages that caused us not to succeed, rather than our own inabilities. And our confirmation bias makes it easy for us to find proof that we were right in the first place!
Sometimes, of course, we really do have plenty of obstacles in our path and many amazing people have overcome huge challenges and become better for it. But for most of our everyday experiences, the odds are really not stacked against us and the act of convincing ourselves that they are is not going to do us any good at achieving what we want – instead, it gives us an excuse to give up, or to not even try in the first place.
Nothing stays the same forever. Even if you do feel like you’re experiencing more of a headwind right now, remember that everything is temporary and the winds will eventually shift. It may feel for a while like everything is pushing against you and keeping you from achieving your goals, but if you can ride it out and keep your focus on what you have control over, soon it will feel like the wind is at your back and everything is working out just perfectly. And then eventually things may feel shitty again, and so on and so forth – the point is that neither phase lasts forever!
This doesn’t mean that you should just sit around and wait for your luck to change, because it is up to you to take advantage of the tailwinds when they come. And, if you’re the type of person who is convinced that the world is out to get you, you’re probably pretty good at finding the negative in every situation and may never appreciate the tailwinds when they arrive. But if we can remember that both the positive and negative moments of our lives will not last forever, then we won’t be so upset when bad things come along or when good things eventually end.
If you are reading this blog post, odds are you live in a developed country with plenty of access to food and clean water, you probably have a roof over your head and clearly you have access to internet. Whether or not you are in a headwind or tailwind in your life, you still have at least the bare minimum you need to survive. So many people in the world don’t even have these basic needs met. That doesn’t mean that whatever trials you are going through are not important or that you should feel guilty for having what you have. But it does mean that you probably already have A LOT to be grateful for – think about it: what do you REALLY need that you don’t already have?
What if, instead of being paranoid that everyone was judging us and trying to make our lives harder, we practiced “pronoia” – the belief that the universe is conspiring in your favor. (I heard this term in a TED talk once and thought it was pretty sweet). The same exact event can happen to two different people and one who is paranoid is going to have a much different experience than one who is pronoid.
Expecting that something good is going to happen and that other people love you and want the best for you will help you to view your life in a much more positive light and will help you actually notice when good things are happening, no matter how small they are. If we focus on the difficulties, the challenges, the handicaps we think we have, we may miss out on all the little miracles there are to be grateful for in this life.
Going around thinking that your life is harder than everyone else’s and that the world owes you something in return isn’t going to do you a bit of good – it certainly won’t change the events in your life for the better or give you any more control over anything other than your own mindset. So why not choose to have a more positive outlook so that you can really relish in the tailwinds when they come along? With this outlook, you can know that headwinds will be there too, but they won’t be forever and there is no need for you to compare your difficult times to others and assume that you are worse off. Face your challenges head on, ride them out, and know that another tailwind will come along soon.