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December 9, 2012

Neuroscience has started to provide some pretty surprising and compelling insights into the way we think, feel and experience the world.  Some of these findings don’t seem so striking at first glance, but they do explain quite a lot about the way things are.

For instance, it seems we humans are hard-wired to seek out and react to negative experiences and potential threats. These cues register with us much more quickly and strongly than we sometimes realize. Interestingly enough, however, our reactions do not necessarily give us a negative view of the past. Happy or sanguine experiences seem to resonate much more strongly with our consciousness, making them seem more accessible when we reflect upon the past.

In gramatical or linguistic terms, we call references to things that have already occurred at some point of note in the past as the perfect aspect (sometimes case) of the past tense. Organizations or groups of individuals have a particularly strong tendency to see their past successes without much regard for the struggles they endured to produce them. To the extent the imperfections of the past are salient at all, they tend to be seen in a glorious or sanctifying light.

Our tendency to acknowledge and react so strongly to the negative in our present-day experience often casts a pall of pessimism over our predictions of the future, which in turn makes us impatient with others and less tolerant generally of competing or conflicting views. If English had a grammatical way of representing this, it might be called the imperfect aspect or case of the future tense: Call it the tendency to assume others will make our future miserable.

The truth is, we have much more agency than we realize or are willing to admit to ourselves. We may not always be in a position to shape the future. But we can always choose how we respond to it. It helps if we remember that the past almost always seems rosier in retrospect than it did at the time things happened.

These observations give me hope that the disagreements, disappointments and disruptions of the present only have as much purchase over my life I choose to give them. Having influence (or lack thereof) over others is not nearly as important as whether I am willing to accept responsibility for how I think, feel and act. And this mindset need not depend on whether I experience advantage or adversity.

With any luck, adopting this way of looking at the world  will rub off on others, and they will be less inclined to see me or anyone else as a source of their unease or unhappiness. We would all experience a lot less tension in our lives if we were simply willing to accept that others are not the source of our happiness. We are.

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