A wonderful big-hearted friend of mine recently posted about her discouragement with the world- namely with politics. Instead of picking apart her post and invalidating her feelings, I went with my gut reaction. I loaded up a GIF of a hug and sent it followed by this message:
You seem like you need a hug. Don’t be so stressed. Life will continue as it always has, and it’s less about people being offended than about making people aware of the importance of being sensitive and kind when dealing with differences. The world is filled with joy and hope and light, and if you don’t see it, you might be looking in the wrong direction. If you look for it, I promise you will find it.
I wrote it on a whim, so it’s not perfectly worded. But I felt the need to say something, to speak out for the good in the world rather than arguing with her specific political point. I didn’t want to invalidate her feelings, but I did want her to know that our feelings are predicated on what we’re most focused on.
I’ve noticed that she seems anxious and discouraged lately by many of the negative news stories that are trending on a daily basis. She’s not alone. I’ve noticed that many people are feeling overwhelmed, sad, discouraged, and angry at the direction the country is going, and this is coming from across the political spectrum. Far right, far left, and even in the center, people have strong opinions about what is right and wrong for our country and our world.
The pattern is that so many people are looking for and finding the darkness.
Of course, they find it. But is it dark, or have they just closed their eyes? Or are they, perhaps, looking in the wrong direction? If what we feel is influenced by what we’re looking at, how can we change our perspective while staying informed?
A Social Experiment
There’s this very interesting social experiment that I used to assign to families when I worked as a therapist. I would take the children aside and assign them a week of looking for certain positive behaviors in their parents, times when they were doing a great job of being parents. I took the parents aside and gave them the same assignment for their kids. They were both supposed to write down their observations. Then, in a family counseling session, we discussed the findings.
Every time, they had a long list of positive behaviors because they were looking for them. The parents could see all the things their children were doing well, and the kids had come up with a list of things they liked that their parents did. None of them were told to change their behavior, but there were at least 2 reasons that they were able to find and record more positive behaviors than negative ones:
They were looking.
This is key. Instead of focusing on everything the others were doing wrong, they tuned into all the good things. They saw them because those behaviors were there all along, but they hadn’t been paying attention. When they looked just for good behaviors, they saw them.
The focus on positive behaviors in other members naturally encouraged their own positive responses.
By focusing on the good things that other members were doing, their own behaviors naturally responded positively. Instead of reacting to negativity, they began instead to react to the positivity they were witnessing. It had a beneficial impact on the family system as a whole simply by observing and appreciating the good in one another.
How It Applies
When we look for the things we hate about our world, we will find them. We will see violence, bigotry, stupidity, and mass incompetence if that’s what we’re tuned in to find. But if we look for kindness and love and courage and beauty, we’ll find those qualities, too. Both exist. But we can only see what we’re looking for. Why is that?
Inattentional blindness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when we fail to see something that is clearly present because our focus is on another factor. If we’re so focused in on only seeing the ugly aspects of our world, we’re less likely to observe positive events happening right under our noses. As a result, we overlook something that is clearly present in favor of an idea we’ve already decided is the most important. We’re not taking in the world as a whole; we’re only taking in the parts we’re choosing to observe.
Let’s put this in the context of religion. A person who identifies as a conservative Christian sees a news story about a baker refusing to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple, citing religious beliefs (of course, this actually happened). This person viewing the story is more likely to see the world as persecuting Christianity if his or her exposure is only to information that will validate this belief system. They will focus on the one story where some baker received bad press rather than seeing that refusing to serve someone based on a demographic (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) is a form of discrimination that shouldn’t sit well with anyone who identifies as being religious or spiritual. They might be more likely to overlook news stories where other religions experience actual discrimination and persecution because their focus is on the bad treatment they perceive their own religion receiving.
They aren’t seeing the whole truth, just the parts they’ve chosen to focus on.
Observer bias also plays a part. Observer bias occurs when a person’s own internal expectation and beliefs influence their perception.
Let’s put this in the context of politics. When a person has a particular political orientation, everything they see in the news surrounding politics will be good or bad in their eyes based on their own viewpoint. They aren’t observing an event from all points of view. They only see it through the lens of their particular set of beliefs. Oftentimes, what they observe will be skewed because their own perception is colored by their opinions rather than true objectivity.
Big Picture Problems
Take this skewed focus and pair it with a particular bias, and you have people who see the world as being dark, scary, negative, and generally hopeless. They see everything through the lens of a particular set of beliefs and only feel things are going well when the outer world matches up with their belief system.
The problem with this, although we all do it to a certain extent, is that when we only see the world from our vantage point, we fail to see the big picture. If we can’t see the big picture, it’s almost impossible to have empathy for people who are different from us. A lack of empathy for differences is truly scary.
Being able to have empathy for others helps us find compassion for other experiences. It also helps us see issues from varying perspectives. Without empathy for others, we’re unable to connect with anyone who is different, making relationships in the world difficult for us to navigate.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that we’re right because we feel a certain way as if our feelings alone determine the truth. We only consider our own perspective and then wonder why it’s hard for us to relate to people who have views that don’t align with our own. When something happens in the world, the egocentric perspective is more likely to believe that the act is in direct opposition to their belief system versus a separate and unrelated fact altogether.
Not only is empathy absent with egocentrism, but there’s also a focus that centers on how world events will impact them directly without consideration for the impact on others. While it’s normal to be concerned about a direct effect, it’s concerning when our only point of attention is for ourselves without regard to others. This is how discrimination proliferates: bigots emphasize their own experience at the direct cost of others.
Beyond this, our view of the world as a dark place may make us less likely to help others. We may even be less likely to take positive action to make the world a better place if we think that our actions will have little to no impact on the world around us. We give up our agency and succumb to the inevitable darkness. And if we see the world this way, the darkness is inevitable.
But it’s not dark. We just haven’t opened our eyes.
The truth is that the world isn’t nearly as dark as we sometimes make it out to be. Psychological studies will tell us that if we focus on looking for the positive, we’ll find it. If we take the simple social experiment I assigned to clients and apply it to ourselves, we’ll see this play out easily.
The assignment is simple: spend a day looking for the good in others. Observe it and record it. Share it with others.
If we look for it, we’ll most certainly find it. It might be the random act of kindness we witness happening to someone else because we were actually paying attention. It may be the good news story they slid in between two tales of horror because the media doesn’t believe we actually want to hear positive things. We might notice when other people are kind to us or when the world around is beautiful and wonderful and a pretty good place to be.
We’ll see the good because we’re looking.
Our own behavior will change in positive ways because we’re capable of focusing on and observing good things.
Other people will react positively to our positivity.
We’ll share what we see with others, and this will have a positive ripple effect.
Kindness, love, joy, and beauty will spread. Because we took the time to see it and appreciate it and share it with others.
No, the world isn’t such a dark place. We’ve just allowed our focus and our bias to send us out into the night looking with sunglasses on for what we hoped we’d find to validate our focus and bias. We let those perceptions continue in a neverending cycle of looking for and finding the darkness in the world.
But if we shine a light and go looking for the good in the world, we’ll find that, too. We’ll find a treasure trove of kindness. We’ll find an unending supply of love. We’ll see beauty everywhere. We’ll discover joy in the world.
It’s easy to get so incredibly distracted by our own perceptions that we forget that the good doesn’t disappear just because something bad happened. We just have to remember to look for it. No matter how dark, someone somewhere is carrying the light. And if we can’t find it, then maybe we’re the ones meant to carry it for others.