How to Magnify Your Happiness in Seconds
The secret to broadening your mindscape.
Posted Jul 01, 2020
Suppose your boss walks by your desk. You make eye contact with her, smile, and nod. She looks straight at you but doesn’t acknowledge your presence. She might as well be staring at the wall.
“Oh no,” you say to yourself. “I must be in hot water.” You shrink inside, ruminating over what you might have done to deserve this. Your heart races, and you feel shaky. It’s just a few days before your performance evaluation. Sleepless nights stalk you. You toss and turn as your mind spins with worry over job security.
The day of your evaluation arrives. Your boss calls you into her office, and your stomach flip-flops. You tremble the way you did in sixth grade when you were summoned into the principal’s office. But, to your shock, she greets you with a smile and gives you a glowing performance evaluation. Not only are you not in hot water, but she also calls you a highly valued team member.
All that worry and rumination for nothing. Had you thought about it, you might have realized there are a number of benign reasons why your boss didn’t acknowledge you when she walked by your desk. Perhaps she was distracted by her own worries, deep in thought over an upcoming meeting, or simply just didn’t see you.
But your hardwired mind-reading jumped into action, focused only on the disastrous possibilities. It blew your thoughts out of proportion, sending you into spirals of rumination. And you fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Think of all the other times you brooded for countless hours over one negative aspect of a situation when, in retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. Perhaps you even overlooked many positive elements. Your colleagues gave you rave reviews on your presentation, but you couldn’t get that one frowning face in the front row off your mind. The majority of your friends attended your dinner party, but that one no-show couple continued to flash in your brain like a neon failure sign. And what about all those times you wigged out about an upcoming speech, convinced you would fall flat on your face when, in fact, not only did you not fail, you were a huge success—the exact opposite of what your narrow view (scientists call it the negativity bias) predicted.
Some neuroscientists suggest that 90 percent of our worries are false alarms that never manifest. Still, your survival brain is hardwired to prioritize and remember the negative experiences in an attempt to prevent life’s unexpected curve balls from ambushing you.
Keep a Wide-Angle Lens
A negative mindset constricts possibilities and keeps you self-centered. When your focus is narrow (like the zoom lens of a camera), you build up blind spots of negativity without realizing it. The key to widening your mental scope is to replace your “zoom lens” with a “wide-angle lens” and think about the big picture. Known as broaden-and-build, research by Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina shows that an enlarged perspective allows you to see more possibilities that your zoom lens clouds out and to have more positive emotions and gratitude for the many joys in life.
After a novice realtor friend of mine sold millions of dollars of commercial real estate in the first 12 months, her realty company named her salesperson of the year. But she told herself it was a fluke, that the next year would probably be a dud. I was floored. It’s amazing how we can unwittingly sabotage our happiness, simply by the perspectives we create—the brain’s tendency to predict negative outcomes despite positive circumstances. A narrow mindscape without big-picture proof doesn’t make it true. It simply makes us miserable.
If you’re like the average person, your survival brain overestimates threats of the unknown, forecasts a negative outcome, collects evidence to support it, and then waits for the ax to fall. My friend’s negative predictions discounted, minimized, and ignored the positive events that contradicted how she thought of herself. Despite everything coming up roses, she suffered the misery of her negativity bias—even though it never came true.
Jumping to conclusions without evidence gives a distorted view of your predicament, leaves little room for clarity, and leads to bad decision-making. You can save yourself a lot of unnecessary misery by questioning automatic thoughts and waiting to see if the hard evidence supports them.
Truth be told, most things you worry about never happen or at least not in the way you imagine. Sometimes you have to wait for an outcome to convince yourself of an exaggerated perspective. Other times you can get a reality check from friends or co-workers. But the best solution is to suspend narrow, negative conclusions until you have convincing evidence.
Staying open to the future and broadening your perspective about how events might happen without trying to make them happen to suit you can alleviate stress and magnify your happiness. When you wait to connect the dots after, instead of before, the hard evidence is in, you’ll discover that your narrow lens is usually an unreliable source of information. Finding hard evidence first before jumping to conclusions saves you a lot of self-loathing, unnecessary worry, relationship problems, and time.
Fredrickson, B.L (2009). Positivity: Discover the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Crown.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2