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Do you see what I see?

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective lately. We all know how much our mental state shapes the way we experience things. As the saying goes, “if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” While some might argue that this is a gross oversimplification, I suspect we can all agree that there’s truth in it.

The thing that’s most captured my attention recently has less to do with “can” or “can’t” and more to do with the connection between my emotions and the way I see things (literally... with my eyes). Or maybe more accurately, with the way my brain interprets the visual signals it receives.

Psychologists have long known that negative emotions narrow our focus. We’ve all experienced this. We are gripped by anxiety and get hijacked by the fight/flight/freeze response of our reptilian brains, losing all access to higher brain functions and suffering from tunnel vision. We are consumed by our plight.

For me, this often shows up as a fixation on flaws. When I’m stressed or sad or even tired, my inner critic seizes the opportunity to provide running commentary on everything in view... Look at your thighs… they’re humongous. And why are your knees so saggy? What on earth made you think that outfit looked good on you? You look like a blob. And what exactly is your hair doing? It’s totally flat, and your bangs look ridiculous. By the way, this room is a complete disaster… There’s crap everywhere! You get the idea. Of course it rarely stops there. Instead, it quickly devolves into more sweeping attacks on the person responsible for all of these And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Hopelessville, U.S.A.

But there’s good news. (Phew.) While negative emotions narrow our focus, it turns out that the opposite is also true... positive emotions broaden our awareness. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who pioneered this work, refers to this phenomenon as the “broaden-and-build theory.” In my opinion, the coolest evidence in support of this idea comes from an experiment in which people were randomly primed with either positive emotions (by receiving a tiny gift or looking at pictures of puppies, for example) or neutral emotions.

Now bear with me because my description gets a little clunky, but study participants were then shown three figures—one “standard” figure (the top figure in the image in this post) along with two other comparison figures that resemble the standard figure in different ways. One has the same overall layout or “global configuration” as the standard figure but is made up of different individual shapes (as in the figure on the bottom left of the image above). The other has a different global configuration but the same “local configuration” as the standard figure, meaning that it’s made up of the same individual shapes (as in the figure on the bottom right of the image). Remarkably, people who had recently experienced positive emotions were more likely to consider global configuration when assessing similarity (meaning that they’d choose the figure made up of triangles in this example); in other words, they took a broader, bigger-picture view. (See Fredrickson and Branigan, 2005, for details.) Amazing, right?

The most salient example of this phenomenon in my own life is captured by my reaction to my wedding photos. (Backstory: I am not photogenic and have lived pretty much my entire life dreading having my picture taken.) When I first saw digital photos of my wedding a few hours after the ceremony, I was elated! Against all odds, I looked good in almost every picture! I immediately sent them out to everyone I could think of. The next day, after coming down a bit from the wedding-day high, I liked the photos a lot. But I started to notice how my hair looked kind of weird in one of the photos and how my eyes were sort of squinty in another. A week later, after returning to the stressors of my everyday life, I found the photos tolerable at best and wished I hadn’t been in such a hurry to share them with the world. (Sad face.)

So, what do I take away from all of this?

First, don’t believe everything you see. (Didn’t I assert in my last post that we can’t believe everything we think? I’m sensing a trend.) If you’re completely fixated on the three hundred and twenty-seven dust-bunnies that are currently scurrying all over your dining room floor, chances are your perspective has been hijacked by negative emotion.

Second, cultivate positive emotions like joy, contentment, love, hope, and excitement. Some approaches that work for me are...

  • Practicing gratitude. Research clearly demonstrates its benefits. Plus it makes the world a brighter place. Enough said.

  • Connecting to something deeper. Whether it’s reading something moving, listening to an inspiring spiritual teacher, or getting out in nature, tapping into something of greater significance helps me reset.

  • Laughing. I'm amazed by how many hilarious people there are in the world. Witty friends and family are my go-to resource. Videos of toddlers are a close second. ;)

  • Savoring pleasant memories. Reflecting back on joyful, funny, or loving experiences from my past can lift my mood in the present.

  • Getting sh!t done. This one may be a bit controversial, but it almost always makes me feel better, even if it just means checking something super small off my list. (This is in line with Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being.)

  • If all else fails, I can count on a dance party (to my favorite songs) to get the positive emotions flowing.

This list just begins to scratch the surface. There are numerous ways to cultivate positive emotions. By noticing what works for you, you'll build a full set of simple tools you can pull out whenever you need them.

You know, as I reread this post, I'm struck by all of its shortcomings, including how needlessly complex (at best) and confusing (at worst) my description of the broaden-and-build experiment is. Hmm. Sounds like it's time to see what Mila Stauffer and the McClure twins have been up to. :)

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