Our brains are made to look for problems. From an evolutionary perspective, this worked. Living in caves, we had to be aware of potential danger.
Today, the time and focus we spend in constant judgement doesn't serve much purpose. Our fault-finding and imperfection-seeking can cause emptiness and overwhelm.
A common way to override negativity is to remind ourselves - or have others remind us - that there's always someone worse off. How lucky we are to live in a developed nation with running water and a roof over our heads.
But a March 2019 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies describes a more effective way to feel better. Here's a summary:
Researchers Douglas A. Gentile, Dawn M. Sweet, and Lanmiao He asked groups of Iowa State University students to walk around campus for 12 minutes. Each group was assigned a different strategy as they encountered other campus-walkers:
Group 1 focused on what researchers call "loving-kindness." The students would see peers passing by and think positive, loving thoughts. They'd silently recite: "I wish for this person to be happy," with meaning and genuine, strong conviction.
Group 2 was assigned "interconnectedness." This group was told to imagine what a passer-by might have in common with them, in terms of hope, beliefs, aspirations.
Group 3 used "downward social comparison" when observing another student on campus. This strategy uses thoughts about being better off than the other person.
The control group/group 4 was told to pay attention to superficial visuals like others' physical appearance and clothing style. Pretty much the brain's default judgement-oriented state, right? No instruction was given about how to think.
Each group was surveyed to measure levels of different emotional states, like anxiety, stress, happiness, empathy, and connectedness.
Probably no surprise, groups 1-3 scored higher than control group 4.
The overall winner? Group 1, "loving-kindness" had highest measures of empathy, caring, happiness, and connectedness, with the lowest degree of anxiety, from their well-wishing.
"Interconnectedness" group 2 - imagining commonalities - felt greater social connectedness, but with no other significant benefits.
Group 3 - "downward social comparison" - showed no mood improvements with lower rates of empathy, happiness, and caring, from thinking others are worse off.
Perhaps this is why being told as a child to eat (insert your most repulsive food name here) because of the worse-off starving children, is rarely effective. Or when I'm told "at least she's healthy" or "at least you know where she is" as an estranged mom, I don't feel better. Maybe there's some truth there, but in both scenarios I mostly feel a bit guilty and dismissed.
The reason? The researchers assert that social comparison is essentially a competitive strategy. There can be some benefit - the social comparison group 3 did fare better than default-thinking control group 4. But competition and comparison can pit people against one another, causing depression, anxiety, and stress. Other studies have shown that thinking someone's worse off can lead to guilt and hyper-focus on the potential of worsening circumstances for you, too.
With each group there is a direct correlation between thoughts and overall well-being. Feeling better always comes from our thinking.
Sincerely wishing well to others? No downside. It's unifying. It's acknowledges our collective suffering as humans. And shows we can support one another in a way that's pure and genuine. All of that applies to us, too - we feel that compassion.
Because of our natural brain-bias for negativity and judgement, compassion isn't always as simple or automatic as we might expect. It's a skill, an effective antidote to hurt and negativity, especially in difficult or painful circumstances.
Wishing happiness is an easy way to develop this skill. I'd challenge you to try it for a week.
While study participants practiced loving-kindness over a 12-minute walk, don't let that stop you. A walk - always awesome. 12 minutes might be ideal. But I live by "something is better than nothing." Go to work, the store, even drive in your car, and silently wish other humans happiness.
Practice and see how it affects your levels of stress, well-being, connectedness.
I'd love to hear how it goes!