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Flawed perspective of good and bad

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Flawed perspective of good and bad

Scott Miker

Most of us are surrounded by events and actions that we judge as either good or bad.  We can usually find reasons to justify our reasoning and then we react accordingly.

But what if that part of our thinking is actually wrong?  What if judging something is flawed in a way that predisposes us towards unhappiness?

The reality is that humans are flawed in the way we think.  We falsely believe that we are unbiased and un-swayed by our negative emotions but this isn’t true.  

Our perspective is in incredibly powerful thing.  I learned that lesson years ago when I was in a room listening to a speaker who asked us all to close our eyes.  As we did, he said to picture the color red.  He said to think of stop signs, blood, roses etc.  As we did this for a few minutes it became easier to visualize the objects and the bright red color.

Then he said to open our eyes.  As I did the room looked completely different.  Nobody changed anything but suddenly all of the red in the room popped out.  I saw the red jacket at the table next to me that I hadn’t noticed.  I saw the exit sign.  I saw the red letters in the PowerPoint presentation. 

All of the red suddenly came to focus while all of the other colors blended away.  It was one of the strangest feelings to see this for the first time and realize the power of focus and perspective.  At that moment I was attracted to red.  I could see red where others couldn’t and I was more sensitive to the color red then other colors, all by just visualizing it for a few minutes. 

Unfortunately it isn’t colors that grab our perspective.  We are also biased towards the bad.  We overlook the good and grab on to the bad things in life.  We torture ourselves by being too focused on the bad that we miss the good all around us.  Just as I was locked into the color red, we are all locked in to find everything bad we can in life.

The reality is that it is easy to find the negative.  It is all around us.  And since most people gravitate to the negative we see this perpetuated in everything we watch on TV, the music we listen to, the conversations we have at the office etc.  The bad keeps forcing its way into our attention and suddenly we lose unbiased perspective, instead being led away by everything bad. 

One of the things that many people feel is that if they won the lottery then that would ease their troubles and they would be happy.  But studying lottery winners reveals the opposite.

In It’s Not About the Shark – How to Solve Unsolvable Problems, author David Niven, Ph.D, states, “But that is how we are wired.  Good things, ultimately, are secondary to bad things.  Good breaks down over time.  We get used to things, and it raises our expectations.  If you spend your lottery winnings on a giant house, it just becomes your house.  And good makes other things seem boring.  After you win the lottery, how excited will you be about reading an interesting magazine article or buying a nice pair of pants?  Good fades.”

This insight helps to shift how we think about winning the lottery but it also points to a flawed way that humans think about the world.

He goes on to say, “Bad things, on the other hand, are always compelling to us.  Bad is so compelling to us that even when we have every incentive to value good over bad, we value bad over good.”

So when we step outside to head to work and we see a gloomy rainy day it attracts us.  When we see a bright sunny day, we take it for granted. 

If the reason for this unhealthy focus on the negative is our own flawed thinking then the solution is to address our habitual ways of thinking.  We have to systematically start to shift our focus.

The first step for me was to stop watching the news and other negative media.  I wouldn’t get caught up in the daily news, which was just a summary of everything bad around us. 

I stopped listening to negative music habitually.  Instead I would listen to reggae, which had a positive upbeat vibe and lyrics that tended to emphasize overcoming obstacles and standing up for your rights.  

I even started to avoid negative people.  Over time I started to realize that it wasn’t so much that I had to avoid those people, but until I habitually shifted my thinking I would gravitate to their negative mindset.  It wasn’t their problem it was mine but until I shifted my perspective towards the positive it was hard not to fall into a downward spiral of negative thinking. 

Something incredible started to happen as I did this.  I started to see both sides of the situation.  I started to find opportunity where others missed it simply because I knew that my judgment of the situation was flawed and favored the bad over the good.  Once I knew that I could start to see things in a more accurate, unbiased way.  But until I understood how I was compelled to the bad, I had no idea that I was always pushing towards the negative over the positive.

The systems and habits approach to improvement is powerful because it attacks the powerful structures in our lives that we usually don’t even notice.  It changes our mental models and we start to see a shift in the patterns in life.  It does it through continued, deliberate action that starts to form new habits and shifts our behaviors and our thinking.  Using this we can finally start to even out our thinking so that the bad doesn’t always override the good and we can finally start to see things as they are, instead of as we judge them to be.