Blue Monday is just around the corner and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. But maybe it isn’t all bad?
I’m guessing the immediate reaction for some of you will be along the lines of ‘it bloody well is’!
Certainly, if you happen to be going through a difficult time in your life then it is likely to feel that way. Even if you are not going through a major life event you may still feel like this from time to time.
It is very easy to get bogged down in the day to day hassles that life presents us with.
When someone simply tells you to look on the bright side or some similar well-meant but largely unhelpful platitude, my guess is that you internally tell them where to stick their bright side.
That said, there is something about the way our attention works that could prevent us from seeing a bright side if we think that everything is going wrong or if we are feeling bogged down.
Focus of attention
Our focus of attention is not an objective thing; it is subject to numerous biases and we tend to filter out some information while paying particular attention to other information.
This is a very necessary way for us to operate because if we took in all of the available information to the same level, we would struggle to process it all or to get anything done!
Our brains, sometimes helpfully but at other times less helpfully, tend to take short-cuts.
I will talk about 3 short-cuts in particular that work together to maintain the belief that everything is awful.
- We pay particular attention to the things that support what we already believe and these things are generalised and magnified.
- We largely ignore information that contradicts what we already believe.
- We distort neutral information to fit in with what we already believe.
To flesh this out a bit, let’s imagine person A has the belief that everything is going wrong and person B has a belief that things are going pretty well.
Now let’s say that the same 3 events happen to person A and to person B.
- They each go for a job interview and don’t get the job.
- They each get positive feedback from the interview despite not getting it.
- They each get stuck in traffic on their way home that night.
Person A will definitely turn their full attention to the fact that they didn’t get the job but it is unlikely to stop there.
If they have a belief that everything is going wrong they are likely to be thinking:
‘I knew it’, ‘I never get the jobs I really want’, ‘I’m always really bad at interviews’, ‘I’ll never be able to get a promotion’, ‘nothing ever works out in my favour’, ‘what’s the point in even trying’.
It becomes about more than just this one job interview. It becomes about every job interview they have been unsuccessful in and it about every job interview they will go to in the future.
It may also be generalised to other unrelated events that are not going well – maybe the boiler broke last week or their car needs to go into the garage – it all becomes lumped together and gives more weight to the belief that everything is going wrong.
So later, when they receive feedback that they did very well in the interview and that it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, person A doesn’t really acknowledge the positive feedback. It is simply discounted.
Later still when person A gets stuck in traffic (which I am classing here as something fairly neutral) they are likely to give that their full attention and interpret it as being terrible because it fits with the way they already think and feel.
Maybe it goes something like:
‘Oh, this is all I need after such a bad day’, ‘what else can possibly go wrong’, ‘I hate being stuck in traffic’, ‘now I’ll miss out on time this evening’.
Person A still holds the belief that everything is going wrong and probably feels pretty de-moralised.
A different focus
On the other hand, person B is less likely to focus as much attention on the fact that they didn’t get the job. They may feel disappointed but if they already believe that things are going well they are more likely to dismiss it:
‘It is disappointing but there will be plenty more opportunities out there’, ‘It wasn’t the right kind of job for me anyway’, ‘it was good experience to go to the interview’, ‘I’ll do better next time’.
Later, when they receive positive feedback and are told it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, they will give that positive feedback their full attention and they are likely to generalise and magnify it.
‘That was nice feedback’, ‘I am pretty good at interviews’, ‘They seemed impressed with me, I’m sure I’ll get the next one’.
Then, when person B gets stuck in traffic they may think:
‘I don’t mind having a bit of time for my brain to unwind before I get home’, ‘I can listen to that podcast I have been wanting to listen to’, ‘I’m not in any rush anyway’.
Person B still holds the belief that things are going pretty well.
Neither way of looking at these events is right or wrong. They are both biased. But person B is going to experience far less negative emotion than person A.
So, if you wanted to challenge the belief that everything is going wrong, it is going to take a change of focus.
Not so much looking on the bright side, but purposefully seeking to alter the attentional biases at work.
Step 1: State only the fact, rather than generalising and magnifying.
Step 2: Acknowledge the positives, rather than discounting them.
Step 3: Ask yourself if there is a different way of seeing the same situation. How would you view it if you felt better? How would someone else view this situation?
Have a not so bad day!
Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!