It's human nature to focus on the negative. That doesn't always serve us well.
I got a reminder of this recently during a coaching session with best-selling author and executive coach Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland, and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it.
But that doesn't mean I feel good about it all the time, or even most of the time. In fact, lots of the time what I mostly talk about is my frustration. That's because humans have an inborn tendency to notice what's bad more easily than what's good. It's not our fault--our brains are actually wired that way thanks to evolution. Our ancestors who were quick to see threats were more likely to survive and pass along their DNA than those who weren't.
And so there I was telling Capland in detail how stuck I was feeling in various areas of my work and life, and how frustrated I was feeling with myself about it. "Your energy is like a hamster in a wheel," she commented.
That made me stop and think for a moment. Was I truly a hamster in a wheel? Well no, I wasn't. And so I began explaining all the ways this wasn't true. Objectively speaking, I had been making significant progress on several projects. I was frustrated because, as often happens, taking new steps forward had brought me up against a whole new set of obstacles. But being human, I was focusing my attention on everything I hadn't accomplished, instead of what I had, and on everything that was blocking me instead of everything that wasn't.
Here's why it's smarter to focus on what's going right instead of wrong:
1. It gives you better momentum.
If you've ever gone hiking in the mountains, you may have heard this advice: When you stop to rest, sit facing back along the path you've just traveled rather than forward toward the climbing you have yet to do, because feeling that sense of accomplishment will give you more energy for climbing higher.
It works the same way in our professional lives, Capland says. "Once you're in the energy of what's going right, it's easier to see all the things that are going right. It's a more powerful perspective from which to move ourselves forward if we're doing it from saying 'That went well, why don't I do that again?' rather than, 'Nothing ever works.'"
2. You get more of what you focus on.
This is the idea behind the "Law of Attraction," a principle many high successful people believe in, which holds that the universe sends you more of whatever you're most intent on, whether negative or positive. If you're obsessing about debt, you'll get more debt, the idea goes. If you turn your attention to income, you'll get more income.
While that's a bit mystical for me, there's a more scientific version called "frequency bias" (or the "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon") which holds that while there are many things around us at all times, we notice those that we're on the lookout for. Whichever you believe it's certainly true that you're likely to find more of what you focus your attention on, whether it's opportunities or road blocks. So there's solid science behind the idea that focusing on the positive will give you better results.
3. It will probably give you a more accurate view of things.
Why? Because humans are hard-wired to notice the negative more than the positive. That means you're likely to have an inaccurately dire view of many things in your life. So making an effort to think positively won't necessarily skew your viewpoint to be overly optimistic. It might just bring you back into balance so you can see things as they actually are.
4. It will make you happier.
This will help you achieve your goals because there's plenty of evidence that happier people get more done (and are also likely to live longer). So focus on what's going right because it will make you happier, and being happy will make you healthier and more productive. Or just do it because it will make you happier. Isn't that reason enough?