Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Here's the Good News:
I’m a problem solver, and chances are, you are too. How do I know? Well, it’s because good old Mother Nature has taken care of it by having the foresight to hardwire it into our nervous systems.
You see, long ago it became clear that the ability to identify and prioritize threats in our environment was a key ingredient for keeping us on the right side of the daisies. Zeroing in on threats while remaining undistracted by everything else turns out to be the winning formula for perpetuating the species (something Mother Nature is a big fan of, at least according to that Darwin fellow). In other words, faced with a saber-toothed tiger and a blossoming lilac, well, let’s just say he who stops to smell the roses (or lilacs in this case) loses.
For that reason, what is not working in our environments (whether a problem, irritant, or life-threatening event), quite naturally and effortlessly captures our attention. It’s something our nervous systems do without any need for us to do anything about it.
Again, this makes us exceptional problem solvers. Constantly scanning our surrounds for whatever doesn’t look quite right, and then springing into action to devise ways to overcome the peril. We are always on the job. Scan. Identify. Fix.
And now the Bad News:
Our tendency to focus on problems brings with it a rather nasty side effect: namely, because attention isn’t really designed to attend to more than one thing at a time, when our attention is consumed with what’s wrong, we literally don’t have the capacity to notice what’s right. The more we focus on problems, the more our world seems to be made up of nothing but problems.
Thus, it is this spontaneous focusing of attention on the threats and problems in our environment that is responsible for an exceedingly unbalanced and negative perception of our lives. This leaves us complaining about an entire range of preposterous, first-world problems while bathing luxuriously in a vast sea of blessings.
• Ever seen someone having a mid-air melt down because the airline’s WIFI is down?
• Or watched your spouse burst into anger over the dishes in the sink while completely ignoring the sink (and the attached house) that 90% of the world’s population would give their right arm for?
• Or marveled at the kid complaining that the seat warmers don’t work while be chauffeured to private school in the back of a $70,000 Range Rover?
Now you know why. And we’re all guilty of it.
Complicating matters, as times have changed, threats have changed.
No longer is the predominant threat to our well-being a salivating carnivorous feline or other unsavory predator, instead we are now faced with an panoply of minor annoyances like traffic, criticisms, workplace competition, and relationship challenges.
While certainly not life threatening, they are perceived as threats to our well-being, and as far as the old nervous system is concerned, that’s good enough to warrant our undivided attention. Where our focus was once spontaneously drawn to the venomous snake slithering its way into our cave, it is now captivated by the conniving coworker trying to weasel his way into the good graces of the boss.
Simply put, what was a marvelous development some 5,000 years ago has become our Achilles heel of sorts, causing our predominant perception of our lives to be composed of threats and problems to be eliminated.
Scan. Identify. Fix. Command the neurons. And so, we do.
And More Good News:
Attention can be trained.
It is possible to consciously intervene in this hard-wired process and deliberately shift attention onto the blessings in our lives.