By David Joel Miller.
How happiness becomes invisible.
Happiness is so much harder to find than pain for the majority of humans. This is not a result of some personal failing. Turns out that this bias, to see the bad and the dangerous and to miss the happy and the pleasant, is a built-in feature, a part of the design of humans.
One particular psychological principle explains a lot about the inability of so many people to see happiness even when it is right in front of you. That principle is the “expert effect.”
Let me explain expert effect and how it hides happiness with a story from my past.
I once had a friend who was into antiques. We decide to meet up for lunch and check out a few antique stores downtown. After walking through one especially well-stocked establishment we paused outside to talk about what we had seen.
“Did you see that Fenton glass? And the shelf of carnival glass over in the corner?” She asked.
I had to admit I hadn’t noticed either of these glass items. They were right there in plain sight.” She commented. “How could you have missed them?”
I had to admit I had missed them. There was a good reason why. At that point in my life, I could not have told you the difference between a piece of Fenton glass and a fence. I could easily spot the shelves of old books but the glass, not so much.
So after that experience and not wanting to appear so stupid I determined to solve this problem. The next week I went to the library and checked out, and read, some books on antique and collectible glass. The next time we went antique hunting I did indeed see all sorts of previously invisible collectible glass.
Not only did I see it, but now I slowed down to take a close look and tried to remember what I had read about this particular type of glass. When we did finally talk about what we had seen there was so much more to the conversation.
The principle here is the “expert effect.” If you don’t know what something looks like it is hard to spot. The more you learn about a subject the faster you will identify it and the more meaning it will have when you see it.
Most of us are hard-wired to spot pain but we have never learned to see happiness. This makes the good things in life invisible even when they are right in front of us.
Most of us are naturally able to spot the unhappy, the painful and the dangerous. You don’t need to be eaten by a lion to know that avoiding lions is a good thing to do. We can learn from others by seeing them get eaten. We might even learn from hearing others tell tales about lions eating people. Getting eaten has a high importance if you live around lions. In my town, we avoid gang members with guns in the same way.
It is much harder to spot others who are happy. And we don’t often hear stories about others happy moments. Even when we do see and hear happiness stories they don’t stick in our brains the way lion stories do. This is called a negativity bias.
Rick Hanson author of Buddha Brain, has written and talked about our ability to learn about the negative quickly and our lack of skill in learning to spot and remember happiness. With time our brains can learn most anything but the less you know about the topic the harder it is to learn and the more we will be biased to learning only scary things we need to know to keeps us alive.
So his prescription for learning about happiness? How do you become a happiness expert so you can spot it at a distance and learn to run toward happiness instead of from lions? Hanson suggests that a positive memory needs to be held and savored for 20-30 seconds before it will sink in unlike pain that registers straight off. He calls this 3 step process “taking in the good.”
The brain does not do a good job of storing facts, especially small or unimportant facts.
Did you know that the bulk of all learning, maybe 80% or more, is emotional, not intellectual?
Want to remember something? Turn it into an emotional experience, not a fact. Here is a happiness example.
You are walking along at a fast clip, trying to get your exercise done before sunset. Nice sunset. Nice flower I just passed. Glad when this jogging stuff is over and I can rest. Is that the way many of us do this exercising thing?
What would happen if you stopped and looked at the sunset? How long can you stare at your neighbor’s flowers before she calls the cops? If you pause and look, for as little as twenty to thirty seconds, give this experience time to soak into your brain, you will greatly increase the likelihood of remembering this experience as a pleasant one. Let a few of these 30-second experiences accumulate and you might become a happiness expert.
What – you too busy to spend 30 seconds collecting happiness?
But wait there is more. Hanson also said that besides slowing down and turning the facts into an experience, holding the feeling for the 30 seconds we also need to make a conscious effort to save the experience.
So if you set out to become a happiness expert invest the time, feel the feeling when it comes and plan to hold on to it and capture it in your brain.
You too can become a happiness expert and prevent happiness invisibility.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books