Part of my mental health routine is a beneficial Wednesday morning hiking date with my friend, Susan. Trailhead parking lots tend to fill quickly on California’s Central Coast, so we get an early start. The routine is always the same: secure a parking spot, zip key and water bottle into my fanny pack, and head off for some fresh air and friendship.
Inevitably, by the time we finish our hike, several latecomers are circling the lot, eager to grab the first liberated parking spot. Although always deep in conversation, when we see that others are waiting Susan and I say goodbye abruptly and leave in our respective cars.
Last week, the routine didn’t go as usual.
As I grabbed the handle of my car door to leave, I heard a beeping sound and then the lock clicking. My car has one of those keyless lock systems, and even though it should have alerted me if I had left my key in the car, I assumed that’s what had happened.
I forgot about the circling parking sharks as I began to troubleshoot. Matthew didn’t answer his phone, so he couldn’t drive over with the spare key. I was about to give up and get a ride home with Susan when I noticed a note on my windshield that read, “I found your key on the trail and left it above the sign near the restroom.”
No name. No number. Just a smiley face for a signature.
I showed Susan the note, and just as we were commenting on humanity’s inherent kindness, a woman waiting to park yelled out to us in an irritated tone, “You two sure are taking a long time to leave!”
“We’re having a key issue here,” Susan replied.
“I bet you are,” the woman snapped and drove on.
My impulse was to tell her off the next time she circled past, but I caught myself.
Is there a better way to live in this moment? Can I choose kindness?
Why don’t I focus on the lovely soul who found my key and left me a note? In fact, let’s go get that key they tucked away for me above the sign near the restroom.
Observing myself in this situation reminded me of a pattern that has shown up at various times in my life: letting the negative overshadow the positive.
If you can relate, that’s because the human brain evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It’s called the negativity bias. Negativity bias used to keep us safe from danger, back when sharks (and other predators) were literally circling. However, in modern days it often does us more harm than good.
Negativity bias could have gotten me into a useless confrontation with a woman desperate for a parking spot. It could have negated all the positive effects of my weekly hike with Susan. It could have kept me from reveling in the kindness of strangers.
But, at least that day, it didn’t. That day, I chose a fairytale ending to the story.
Do you ever find yourself focusing on what’s wrong in your life or the world? Are you giving equal attention to what’s right? Do you choose kindness?
Do you do the same with your life stories?
Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of practicing gratitude, including the practice of writing down what we’re thankful for. As tempting as it can be to dwell on the negative, turning instead toward the positive in your life, and writing those things down, can slowly retrain your mind to focus away from the instinctual negativity bias.
We don’t shy away from tough stories in From Journey to Legacy, but we consciously work on building the positivity muscle.
I’m certain that work is what helped me focus on the positive during my parking lot drama. If you’re ready to write your own happy endings, my “Write Your Authentic Story” Starter Kit may help.