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CHOOSING WHERE TO FOCUS


drawing of all the roads we have to walk are winding and all the lights that light the way are blinding

❝All the roads we have to walk are winding, and all the lights that light the way are blinding.❞ -Oasis, "Wonderwall"

I’m excited to be heading out on a camping trip. The place I’m going is right on the Mississippi River. The campsite is right up to the water, so this should be an exciting weekend.


Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t cooperate, and it is very cold for much of the weekend. This makes it a little more difficult to enjoy the campsite, but I’m still making the best of the situation.


Finally, on the last day, the clouds go away, the sun comes out, and the temperature goes up about 20 degrees. It’s an amazing day to be outside.


Of course, the river is west of me, so as I sit and look out over the water, the bright sun is right in my face. I can’t see without squinting. It’s so annoying!


Then it dawns on me that I got exactly what I wanted. I got a nice day. Yet, instead of appreciating the day, I am complaining about the exact thing I wanted.


I could’ve been grateful for having one nice day, but instead, I was irritated that the exact same thing that made this a nice day – the sun – is blinding me.


DREAM LIFE


If you think about it, and I mean really think about it, you are living the dream life. If you are reading this, your life is pretty good, both historically and geographically.


Geographically, if you live in a developed country, for example, you have a pretty good compared to people who live in third-world countries.


drawing of your life

Historically, you might compare yourself to versions of you in the past. For many of us, our lives are better than 10, 20, or 30 years ago.


drawing of your life compared to your past self

And even if you try to make the claim that your life is not better off than they used to be, you can’t deny that you are better off than your ancestors were. This is true of several generations ago, but you don’t have to go back more than two or three generations.


If you could read your great-grandparents' journals, for example, you might find that they would kill to have indoor plumbing, climate-controlled shelters, and access to life-saving healthcare.


drawing of your life compared to your ancestors

SOCIAL COMPARISON


Yet we all know how hard it is to live our lives in a vacuum - trying to compare our lives to the lives of our ancestors 100 years ago or more. The fact is that most people, essentially all the people who exist today, are better off than our ancestors were. And because we are descendants of people who needed to know their position in their tribe, we are hypersensitive to where we fit in a social setting.


So regardless of how much better our life is compared to our ancestors or even us from a couple of decades ago, we look around and measure our worthiness based on our neighbors, the proverbial Joneses.


drawing of your life compared to your neighbors

In the past, the Joneses were actually your neighbors or close social circle. Now, we don’t just compare ourselves to people we see in real life. With social media, we see a curated version – the highlight reel – of anybody’s life anywhere in the world.


Admittedly, if you take more than a couple of seconds to think about this, it is an unfair comparison to compare your full life with the highlights of a very select few. Nonetheless, it still makes us feel inadequate.


drawing of your life compared to your social media network



A grateful person exhibits certain traits. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.



NEGATIVITY BIAS


Part of the reason for this is that we have inherited a negativity bias, which says that we will notice, recognize, and remember things that we perceive as bad far easier than things we perceive as good. Negativity bias leads to what psychologists call hedonic adaptation, which is our tendency to get used to the good in our lives, thus making us take our lives for granted.


drawing of negativity bias

Author Rick Hansen has stated that our brain is like Velcro for negative experiences. It’s always on the lookout for threats because, evolutionarily speaking, we had to be on the lookout for threats because avoiding threats was necessary for survival. People less susceptible to the negative didn’t survive to become our ancestors.


drawing of brain is velcro for negative experiences

The flip side is that our brain is like Teflon for positive experiences. It’s because we expect positive experiences, especially after we have some experience with them.


drawing of brain is teflon for positive experiences

All of this leads to a situation where we keep grasping for new things that we want, partly because those around us have them and partly because what we have is lost in the fog.


drawing of hedonic adaptation

GRATITUDE


The antidote, then, is to raise our awareness and recognize what we have going for us. This doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the bad. It simply helps us become more aware of the things that are going right.


drawing of widening your focus

When we can remember to be more grateful, it shines a light on the things that we already have, or that are going well, and in the process of doing so, has the potential to make us more content with what we have. Things are already going well the way they are. That doesn’t mean we have to stop striving for the things we want. It simply means that we don’t have to feel bad while doing it.


drawing of focusing on what you have

By changing your perspective and taking a wider view, you allow yourself to focus more mindfully on all things that are going right and everything you have.

drawing of lifting the hedonic adaptation fog

As tough as it is sometimes, it really is our choice what we focus on. Life becomes what we pay attention to. Doesn't it make sense to pay attention to what’s going well?


You get one life; live intentionally.


 

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REFERENCES AND INFLUENCES

Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy Denborough, David: Retelling the Stories of Our Lives Dunn, Elizabeth & Michael Norton: Happy Money Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works! Glasgow, Joshua: The Solace Hagen, Derek: Money’s Purpose in Your Life Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor Robin, Vicki: Your Money or Your Life



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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.

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