We’ve all heard the phrase “count your blessings.” Likely from our Grandmas. It’s been around along time, originating in a hymn from the 1800’s. Science is now proving that we should most definitely be following Grandma’s advice. In fact, our well-being might hinge on our ability to focus on our blessings more than we focus on our barriers.
I had a serendipitous moment this week. Just a few days ago, I went for a run, running halfway in one direction and then turning around to head back. When I turned around, I immediately noticed that there was a very strong and constant wind blowing in my face. It was harder to run and my eyes felt dry. It struck me as curious that I did not even notice the wind at all when it was at my back.
Later that day I was reading the book “Burnout” by Emily Nagoski PhD and Ameila Nagoski DMA (which I highly recommend), which introduced me to the research on Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. This refers to the human tendency to do just what I did when I was running- to notice the things that make life harder, while being less aware of the things that make life easier.
I found it funny that I had just noticed a personal example of doing this in my own life, and here I am getting a scientific explanation for it! In the words of the researchers, this tendency is a “bias in people’s assessments of the benefits they’ve enjoyed and the barriers they’ve faced. Barriers and hindrances command attention because they have to be overcome; benefits and resources can often be simply enjoyed and largely ignored.”
In other words, we notice our barriers and instead of counting our blessings, we ignore them. We cruise along, ignoring the ease that the tailwinds give us, but turn around and curse our headwinds for making things harder. Not only do we have a natural tendency to notice barriers, but we also have a natural tendency to talk about them- “commiserate.” This pattern is reinforced as we build a storehouse of memories of barriers, and create of pattern of attention that causes barrier to jump out into our awareness more and more.
The more we become aware of the barriers- aka headwinds, the more we start to believe that we have it harder than others. Research shows that the more aware a person is of their headwinds, the more they believe they have been treated unfairly and, as a consequence, they are more inclined to engage in morally questionable behavior to level the playing field.
The result of this can be simple as a child thinking their brother gets better treatment than them, and using that as justification for sneaking his Halloween candy or as complex as one (racial/socio-economic/religious) group feeling another group gets special treatment and then demonizing that group as a way to punish them or increase their barriers.
Isn’t it wild that what we notice and don’t notice in our lives can have an profound impact on our behavior? To put it another way, a bias in attention can lead to a bias in behavior, and even make us rationalize actions that we view as immoral!
So now that we know that humans have a tendency to notice our headwinds, and believe that we face more obstacles in life then everyone else, and undervalue the advantages and help we receive, what do we do about it? How do we become equally aware of headwinds and tailwinds?
It’s actually pretty simple, but it takes practice. The antidote is gratitude. In other words, count your blessings. It is about training your mind to see the tailwinds. When we strengthen our ability to see the blessings in lives, we create a pattern that allows us to see them more frequently and easily. This not only allows for more opportunities for positive feelings, it also shifts your bias and actually lets you more accurately see reality. Let that sink in for a moment. What has this bias been causing us to miss? How clearly do we see our lives when the blaring siren of that one thing that went wrong, drowns out all the many things that went right?
Here is how to start turning down that siren:
Write down 3 things you are grateful for. Try to come up with new things every day. Seriously, it is impossible to run out of new things.
Write down 3 things that went well and why. The why is important so don’t skip it! The why where you become aware of the tailwinds- the people in your life, the resources, education, and skills you have- that make life easier.
That is it! It takes 5 minutes. Over time this practice can have a profound impact on your life. One study from 2005, written about in the book “Flourish,” by Martin Seligman, impressively showed that when done consistently for only one week, the what-went-well exercise caused participant’s depression scores to plummet.
As humans, we have tendencies that don’t always serve our well-being, and the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry is one of them. Luckily an awareness of this default behavior, and a consistent gratitude practice is enough to tip our bias in a more neutral direction, and creating more well-being in our lives. Through intentional acts of change and consistency, we can indeed change our brains- changing our realities. So listen to Grandma, and count your blessings!
Thanks for reading.
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW
For more motivation on the benefits of practicing gratitude see:
For more on balancing the good/positive/blessings with bad/negatives/barriers see my post on Non-Toxic Positivity here.