23 August 2006

I am a Snapdragon

"Mischief is your middle name, but your first is friend. You are quite the prankster that loves to make other people laugh."

I am a

What Flower
Are You?

09 August 2006

Negativitis’ cripples the human spirit

Negative Thinking
‘Negativitis’ cripples the human spirit

Does it seem strange that some people COMPLAIN they don’t have enough TIME to be happy, yet they find enough time to be sad? Not really. You see, their deplorable plight has nothing to do with having sufficient or insufficient time. It has everything to do with complaining. After all, complaining is the negation of happiness. It’s impossible to complain and be happy at the same time.

So, beware of that insidious disease known as ‘negativitis’ (negative thinking). It is as pervasive as the common cold, but far more damaging. It mutilates, cripples, and corrodes the human spirit. Those infected by it are broken men and women aimlessly plodding along. The dark clouds brooding over them obscure their vision and cause them to become confrontational, apathetic, and cynical. Their lives are like flat champagne, without any sizzle. So, how do we inoculate ourselves against such a harmful disease? It was only after learning about the horrible effects of smoking that people began to give it up. It may be wise to do the same here. So, let’s review the effects of negativitis.

1. Complaining is worse than doing nothing, for it is digging the rut one is in deeper and deeper. Each time one complains, it becomes increasingly difficult to climb out of the ditch they’ve created. To loosen the grip of this vicious habit, we need to become aware of our complaining, stop it in its tracks, and immediately look for something positive to say. It’s just a matter of replacing a bad habit with a good one.

2. A negative attitude is self-defeating. We won’t find solutions to life’s problems by looking for someone or something to blame. Those who say, "Positive thinking doesn't work for me," have got it backwards. It’s not positive thinking that has to work; YOU have to work. For example, you have to work at appreciating what you have instead of moaning about what you lack.

3. Failure to do what you want to do (be happy) causes physical and mental stress. A rotten attitude, not only delays success, but also shortens life by damaging the immune system (to learn more on how your thoughts affect your immune system, investigate psychoneuroimmunology). So, besides the diseases directly caused by stress, such as heart disease and ulcers, we become susceptible to all manner of other diseases because of a weakened immune system.

4. Do you know anyone with a negative attitude? How many years have they been that way? Two years? Five years? Ten years? That’s how many years of happiness and success they have robbed themselves of. Blinded by their own negativity, they are prevented from seeing the good around them.

5. One characteristic of negative thinkers is their need to have the world behave according to their wishes. They have never grown up and still live with childish demands. Whenever people and the world fail to act according to their selfish wishes, they are unhappy. Such a poisonous attitude prevents them from growing and learning how to cope with life's challenges.

6. Everything negative we say about ourselves to ourselves (self-talk) and to others is a suggestion. We are unwittingly practicing self-hypnosis, programing ourselves for failure, and creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

7. The negative world of our imagination creates a negative world that is real and one that we are forced to live in. Take Ralph, for example. He’s always complaining about life. “Nowadays people are rude and surly. No matter where you go or what you do, you have to deal with ill-bred people.” As he said this, we made our way to a coffee shop. Once inside, we were greeted by a cheerful chap who asked us what we would like. Sighing (as if it took a great effect to speak), Ralph, almost inaudibly, ordered a medium sized regular coffee. When it arrived, he started complaining. Pointing to the cup, he said, “This is medium?” Without waiting for a response, he added, “You should have told me your cups are so small; I would have ordered a large one if I knew.” Despite the long line that Ralph was holding up, the man behind the counter tried to be patient. Without complaint, he took away the small coffee and replaced it with a large one. As soon as it arrived, Ralph looked at it aghast and bellowed, “You call this regular? There’s not enough cream!” The man behind the counter, who only moments ago was cheerful was now upset and sarcastically replied, “Yes, for MOST people, this is regular, but if you INSIST, I’ll put in more cream. Perhaps next time you may want to ask for DOUBLE cream!” I was next, so I got my coffee and joined Ralph at the table. “See,” he told me, “what did I say to you? People are rude.” Yes, in Ralph’s world, people ARE rude, but what he does not realize is he makes them so.

8. A particularly pernicious effect of ‘negativitis’ is that it sets one up for the mentality of a victim. Those with a woe-is-me attitude sit around in misery, waiting to be rescued. But they wait in vain because no one can rescue them from their own attitude. They are the only ones who can change it. And until they do so, they are condemned to continue suffering.

9. Another adverse effect of negativity is that it sets one up for the magic-bullet-syndrome. That is, the victim of ‘negativitis’ spends their time looking for a quick, easy fix, when none exists. By denying a fundamental law of life that states anything worthwhile requires effort to achieve, they achieve nothing. They won’t make progress until they realize that nothing in life is free. They’ve got to be willing to do what it takes to get what they want.

10. Also, beware of the fact that negative people attract other complainers. Because those who live in a world of doom and gloom alienate others, they have no choice but to look for other negative people to associate with. They then feed off one another and get locked in a clique of losers.

11. The constant stress that flows from a negative attitude also saps one’s energy, focus, and motivation. It is hardly a formula for success.

12. Also of great concern is the fact that those who refuse to work on improving their negative attitude may slide into depression, self-pity, and hopelessness.

13. Additionally, negative people not only harm themselves; they harm the world. They cease to make a contribution to it. Instead of helping, they spread gloom and misery everywhere. If they insist on infecting others, why not infect them with laughter? If they must carry something contagious, why not carry a smile?

Imagine being in a small boat drifting in a river. And imagine being unaware that your boat has a motor. As long as you fail to use that motor you will be a captive of the river. You will be a prisoner without any control over your destination. Yet, the boat that we’re in does have a motor. We can use it to change course. That motor is our power of choice. All we have to do is choose to look for the good, for when we do so, that is all we will find!

© Chuck Gallozzi
I found this great post about negativity and science around negative people and their brains.

Everyone's favorite A-list target, Robert Scoble, announced the unthinkable a few days ago: he will be moderating his comments. But what some people found far more disturbing was Robert's wish to make a change in his life that includes steering clear of "people who were deeply unhappy" and hanging around people who are happy. The harsh reaction he's gotten could be a lesson in scientific ingorance, because the neuroscience is behind him on this one.

Whether it's a good move is up to each person to decide, but I've done my best here to offer some facts. [Disclaimer: I'm not an authority on the brain! I have, however, spent the last 15 years doing research and applying it, both in my work and also because I have a serious brain disorder, and my brain knowledge could be a matter of life and death. Another disclaimer: I haven't spoken with Robert about this; I'm simply offering some science that supports the decision he may have made for entirely different reasons.]

A few things I'll try to explain in this post:

1) One of the most important recent neuroscience discoveries--"mirror neurons", and the role they play in a decision like Robert's

2) The heavily-researched social science phenomenon known as "emotional contagion"

3) Ignorance and misperceptions around the idea of "happy people"
Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons have been referred to by scientists like V.S. Rmachandran as one of the most important neuroscientific breakthroughs of recent history. This Nova video is a great introduction, but here's the condensed version:

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of "mirror neurons" found in monkeys. It's what these neurons do that's amazing--they activate in the same way when you're watching someone else do something as they do when you're doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that...

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn't need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

"Choose your role models carefully."
"Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better."
"You're hanging out with the wrong crowd; they're a bad influence."
"Don't watch people doing it wrong... watch the experts!"

We've all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone--we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you'll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we've spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session--despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we're around is nearly irresistible.

When we're consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I'm not suggesting that we can't or should'nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don't want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations--where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror--we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak's book:

"Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions," according to Stonsy. "If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior--resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage."

If you were around one or more people with a potentially harmful contagious disease, you would probably take steps to protect yourself in some way. And if you were the contagious one, you'd likely take steps to protect others until you were sure the chance of infecting someone else was gone.

But while we all have a lot of respect for physical biological contagions, we do NOT have much respect for physical emotional contagions. (I said "physical", because science has known for quite some time that "emotions" are not simply a fuzzy-feeling concept, but represent physical changes in the brain.)

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

"...social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measels or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice."

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on "mirror neurons" helps explain the underlying cause. But it's not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:
"When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines - social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology."

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven't experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven't felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we've watched it happen to someone we care about. We've noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We've all known at least one person who really did seem able to "light up the room with their smile," or another who could "kill the mood" without saying a word. We've all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren't able to articulate.

So, Robert's choice makes sense if he is concerned about the damaging effects of emotional contagion. But... that still leaves one big issue: is "catching" only positive emotions a Good Thing? Does this mean surrounding ourselves with "fake" goodness and avoiding the truth? Does surrounding ourselves with "happy people" mean we shut down critical thinking skills?

Happy People

The notion of "Happy People" was tossed around in the Robert-Lost-His-Mind posts as something ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. One blogger equated "happy people" with "vacuous". The idea seems to be that "happy people" implies those who are oblivious to the realities of life, in a fantasy of their own creation, and without the ability to think critically. The science, however, suggests just the opposite.

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain's fear system--one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure--when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there's no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn't pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes. Many neuroscientists (and half the US population) believes that it is exactly this fear != rational thought that best explains the outcome of the last US presidential election... but I digress.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

"Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol."

And while we're dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let's look at a couple more misperceptions:

"Happy people aren't critical."
"Happy people don't get angry."
"Happy people are obedient."
"Happy people can't be a disruptive force for change."

Hmmm... one of the world's leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe--with laughter--some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective...

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn't believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can't be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

"The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope."

And among the "happy people", there's Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

But then there's the argument that says "anger" is morally (and intellectually) superior to "happy". The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

"People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake."

Of course it's still a myth that "happy people" don't get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there's a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

"Be the change that you want to see in the world."

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Remember the flight attendant's advice... you must put on your own oxygen mask first.

Posted by Kathy Sierra on April 17, 2006 | Permalink