Wednesday, July 29, 2009
My most recent blog piece focused on the negativity people in my position attract. Call it the asshole effect. We’ve all had to deal with it. Knock on any door, these idiots are everywhere - people who hate Helen Keller, find fault in a sunset, and think cat food is fillet of cat, which they gleefully describe as tasting like chicken.
Their values are not our values. Hate thy neighbor, the Radioactive Plutonium Rule, It is better to receive than to give ... Whereas we struggle mightily trying to become better people, they cruise through life doing what comes naturally. Ironically - they are the miserable ones.
But it tends to be our friends and loved ones who hurt us most. From assholes, we know what to expect. From those close to us, the unexpected amounts to the unkindest cut of all.
Funny thing, a hundred individuals can heap praise on us - yet we vividly recall the one negative comment. Your dear friend throws himself in front of a car to save your life - you’re furious because three days ago he forgot your birthday.
What is it about us?
Today, by pure chance, I came across a blog piece on Psychology Today by self-described generalist, Jeremy Sherman PhD.
“We are all thin skinned,” he writes. “No one likes hearing anything that feels discouraging or critical. We don’t welcome news that feels like a setback, a loss of status, a loss of gained momentum. We find unpleasant anything that seems to say, ‘you missed a spot’ ..."
No surprise here. Here’s the eye-opener. Citing Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide,” Dr Sherman documents how “loss aversion” contributes to irrational behavior: “Loss aversion explains why sustainable partnerships are ones in which positive encounters outweigh negative ones, five to one.”
Wait! Hold on! It takes FIVE positive encounters to offset ONE negative one? Apparently so. Not only that, any interaction only slightly ambiguous tends to get moved into the negative column. No wonder we’re so miserable.
I’m assuming Dr Sherman is talking about normal people. What about poor shmucks like us? We depressive types can’t seem to help it. We tend to give no weight to positive events and assign disproportionate value to the negative ones. Not only that, we tend to interpret neutral or only slightly encouraging events as negative.
So what does it take for us to balance the scales? A hundred positive events? No wonder we’re so miserable. Fortunately (I use the term loosely) I have bipolar. I have a tendency to over-react to good news. For instance, today I found out that a meteor did not fall on my head, and I’m ecstatic about that.
So what is going on here? Can we point to a system malfunction in the brain? Last month, at the Eighth International Conference on Bipolar Disorder in Pittsburgh, I came across a recent fMRI study that pinpointed a certain location in the brain that appears to be responsible for bipolars over-reacting to both reward and disappointment.
It’s as if we can’t turn our brains off.
The brain studies are coming in thick and fast. A lot of stuff is going on beneath the skull. Naturally, it’s easy - with our brains, especially - to interpret these findings as proof that we’re hard-wired for failure. Not necessarily. The brain is a work-in-progress and we can influence its development.
Granted, sometimes - often - it seems like we’re pushing a rock uphill. It helps if we have four muscular individuals in our scrum, shoulders to the boulder. But all it takes is one asshole, perched smugly above, with an extended pinky jabbing at our rock.
Screw you, asshole! This rock is running you over!