Feel the Wind at Your Back
Consider a new type of gratitude question.
Posted Oct 12, 2017
“Bad is stronger than good.” This is a psychological truism that can be seen in practically all facets of life. In romantic relationships, your partner can’t simply counteract one harsh word with a compliment. At work, your spirits can be crushed by one criticism, even if its couched in praise. For me, it takes at least a hundred positive teaching evaluations to counteract one bad one (and it’s still the bad one that I can recite verbatim). These types of hurts persist far longer than an equal dose of positivity.
While the exact ratio of positive-to-negative has been disputed, it’s largely believed that, to be a happy person, we need to experience more good than bad.
Why This Asymmetry?
For one, as Kashdan and Biswas-Diener write, “Negativity is our evolutionary birthright.” It’s advantageous for our survival to be on guard for life’s threats, problems, and injustices. And as for positivity? While happiness certainly feels good and confers a number of distinct advantages, it’s simply not as crucial for survival.
The Power of a Headwind
I recently heard of a new analogy for this bad-is-stronger-than-good phenomenon: the headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry. To illustrate, imagine you’re out for a walk, run, or bike ride. A headwind—the sort that is blowing against you, into your face—is felt acutely. It’s annoying and frustrating. You’re not able to proceed as quickly and easily as you’d like, and it’s really hard to stop noticing this.
On the other hand, a tailwind—one that is at your back—is much easier to ignore. It’s always there, pushing you along, making life easier. And yet you very quickly adapt to it, such that you don’t even notice it after a minute or two.
Psychologically speaking, negative thoughts, feelings, and events are the headwinds of our lives. They are powerfully felt and often impossible to ignore. They frustrate us as we constantly fight against them, trying to make progress. Meanwhile, those helpful tailwinds, the positive forces that make life easier and happier, are far more difficult to notice. We take the tailwinds for granted.
This headwinds-tailwind asymmetry idea was developed by social psychologists Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai to help explain why we tend to see our lives as so hard: Our siblings had it easier than we did in childhood, our football teams have a tougher schedule than do other teams, and our political party is at an electoral disadvantage relative to the opposing party. The disadvantages we face are, well, more in our faces than the advantages are. (For a fantastic interview, see this.)
How to counteract this?
While it's a challenge, or maybe an impossibility, to push back against the evolutionary birthright of negativity, gratitude can serve as a reminder for all of the advantages we have working in our favor. Reminding ourselves of these advantages—the opportunities, services, supportive people that keep us rolling along—can make those tailwinds much more salient.
Ask yourself questions like: What positive influences have gotten you to where you are in life? What factors help your life run smoothly? What advantages do you often forget to appreciate?
By directing our attention to those headwinds in life, we might just end up feeling more grateful and happier!