Our species evolved during the Ice Age (the Pleistocene epoch). In the last one or two million years, there have been four glaciations — four times when the ice advanced southward for a hundred thousand years or so, and then receded, changing the climate dramatically again and again. These ice invasions caused the extinction of many animals. But not humans. Our species lived through the harsh and radically-changing weather, famines, floods, fires, plagues, and the threat of deadly carnivorous animals walking around hungry. Lots of people died. Natural selection had a field day.
Let’s speculate for a moment. During dangerous times, what kind of human do you suppose would evolve? Would a happy-go-lucky, everything-is-groovy attitude help one survive? I don’t think so. Under those conditions, the best survivors would be those who compulsively noticed what was wrong and were constantly on the lookout for possible danger. In other words, conditions would have selected for a critical, negative, worry-wort. A relaxed, easygoing positive thinker probably wouldn’t last one winter. Those people who survived are our ancestors, so those traits are built into our brains and hormonal systems. Even yours.
It is completely natural to notice what’s wrong, what doesn’t work, and what you don’t like. It’s somewhat unnatural to see what’s good, what’s going well, and what you like and appreciate. But it’s also unnatural to be toilet-trained. It’s unnatural to have good manners. It’s unnatural to delay gratification. What comes naturally (like being negative) is not necessarily best. It might have been absolutely essential for survival a hundred thousand years ago, but times have changed.
Luckily, we are capable of doing things we don’t naturally do — if we know it’s in our best interest and if we firmly and definitely make up our minds to do so. One of the greatest talents of our species is that we’re capable of doing what we don’t naturally do.
You can learn to notice what’s going well. It takes a deliberate, conscious effort. It’ll probably never come naturally (that is, without thinking about it). No matter how many years you make that conscious effort, whenever you look around, chances are the first thing you’ll see is what’s wrong. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s useful to be able to see what needs fixing. But it also helps to notice the good stuff.
Today, deliberately notice something you like about the company you work for and tell somebody. Then take a good look at your coworkers and find something you honestly appreciate about someone and tell that person you appreciate it. Then talk about someone behind her back — talk about what you admire and respect about her. Make this effort a couple of times a day and your relationships will work better. You’ll also be in a good mood more often.
Set a goal at the beginning of the day. How many sincere acknowledgments will you give today? Don’t make your goal too big — you have work to do too. But create some way of keeping track. For example, you could put five pennies in your left pocket and every time you make a good acknowledgment, move one penny to your right pocket. Try to move all of them that day.
Make a regular practice of this and the atmosphere where you work will change. The people around you will feel more noticed and appreciated and liked. And they will treat you with more appreciation in return. All you need to do is commit some unnatural acts.
- Excerpted from the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works.