Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again.
When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.
Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.
Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21).
In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27).
Think about it: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).
We just don’t take in the good.
In a previous article, I pointed out that part of the cure of anxiety is prayer and trust in our heavenly Father. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6; you can read my post on this topic, “The Anxiety Cure,” here).
Another direction from which we can attack anxiety is by taking in good things. Notice that little prepositional phrase that Paul adds to his statement about prayer, “with thanksgiving.” That means, even in our stress, we need to take in the good and be thankful for what we have.
That’s also what Paul mentions immediately afterwards. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
What does this look like? Obviously, for the Christian, it means that we take in the good news that we are accepted by God and adopted as His children in Jesus Christ. We need to dwell on this in our minds for a period of time (see more on this here).
But we shouldn’t limit it to that. God has given us good things all around us. For myself, I go out onto my deck in the morning and enjoy a time of meditation, prayer, study, and coffee. I need to take this experience in and enjoy it. I need to dwell on the fact that I have beautiful trees around me and that God has blessed me with a beautiful place to live. I see all the places where my children play and enjoy the beautiful property where God has blessed us to live. He has given me a mind to know Him and interact with Him. He blesses me with the quiet of the morning. He provides me with good things like coffee that give me pleasure.
This is not a call to ignore hard things. It’s a call to balance, to really see and experience the good.
But what would happen if we really took in these good things consistently throughout the day by meditating on them for 10 or 20 seconds or longer? Wouldn’t thinking on what is good and lovely have a significant effect on our mental well-being?
What if we accompanied every request we made with thanksgiving that dwelt on the goodness of God and the resources He has available for us?
Rick Hanson gives a helpful description of the science of contentment, but we have more. We have the promise of God. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).