August 20

Life is Hard

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Articles | No Comments

Artwork by Alexi Berry

Artwork by Alexi Berry

As someone who writes I often jot down ideas. Sometimes I make something of them right away, other times they get buried behind “better” ideas. This post is an idea that was buried. A good while ago I read Simon Rich’s “Sell Out”. (The story was recently made into a film called “An American Pickle” starring Seth Rogen and reminded me of the idea for this post). It’s the story of a man who 100 years ago was preserved alive in pickle brine and is revived to find his only relative is his great-great-grandson, Simon Rich. (I recommend reading the story, it is quite amusing). About the time I read the story, a song, “Life is Hard” came up on my playlist, and the combination got me thinking, is life hard? (A Google search for the lyrics identified several songs with that title, none of which was the John Mellencamp version I had heard. But this adds to the idea it is a popular theme).

There is no doubt that life is hard at times. Dealing with the pandemic, losses that come with it, social isolation, financial hardship, death, illness, and numerous other difficulties. Prior to the pandemic life was hard. After the pandemic life will still be considered hard. For many life is hard more than it is not, and the purpose of this post is not to minimize that experience or those feelings. Life is hard at times. Everyone experiences hardship, grief, and pain. There can be no argument otherwise. Some experience more hardship than others in this unjust world.

But are most people seeing life clearly? In “Sell Out” Rich juxtaposes life 100 years ago with life today, and pokes fun at the character with his name: “Simon groans into his hands like a man who has lost his family” because his script isn’t laugh out loud funny to his girlfriend. The story repeats this juxtaposition throughout: Life was harder 100 years ago, but we complain more now.

This reminds me of a quote from a short reading in one of my classes: “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” (Goud, 2009, P.311). The author of that quote was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau died in 1862. At some point in his life during the 1800’s, before cars, planes, computers, and smart phones, he felt people were living in too hurried a fashion. We hear similar observations today.

My point is that much of what we experience is simply perception. Being alive today it has to be hard to imagine that the 1800’s were fast paced. Yet Thoreau saw it so (and had a big enough audience that likely thought similarly). It seems odd to Herschel (the pickled character in Rich’s story) that Simon’s life is so hard, considering “He clearly does not work ‘full time,’ not even close” and has so many amenities. Simon lives like a king in Herschel’s eyes. It likely seems odd to some of my older readers that this generation has it hard. How many parents or grandparents have told of the hardships of their generation? It is likely each generation sees there life as harder than the next. Yet despite advances in every area of life, life remains hard.

Another aspect that my students sometimes discuss is what I call whining contests. My argument is that people often feel as if they have to complain, as if their complaints are some sort of badge of honor. My guess is everyone has experienced expressing something negative only to have a peer try to “one up” his or her complaint. This is actually considered an error in empathy and listening, yet it persists and is quite common. One might wonder if the perpetrator feels he has been drawn into a competition, believes he is helping, or feels the need to get some sympathy himself. Regardless of the motive, it happens consistently. Many conversations focus on how hard life is.

This is likely partly due to the brain’s negativity bias. Negativity bias is well established in psychology. Evolutionary theory purports that the brain that focuses on negatives has been more likely to survive. As Rick Hanson puts it, “…we evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences” (p.48). This has helped humans survive. Making the mistake of seeing something dangerous in something benign is more advantageous than paying attention to the beauty in life. Perhaps always focusing on the negative contributes to the perception life is hard, and to sharing this perception with others.

To combat negativity bias, one has to consciously work at paying attention to good things. One way to do this is through gratitude. Focusing on gratitude is an aspect of positive psychology, one of the more popular movements in psychology presently. In one of my favorite TED Talks, Shawn Achor, a proponent of positive psychology, offers five suggestions based on studies that have been demonstrated to make people happier. One of those is focusing on three unique things a day that one has to be grateful for. (The other four are exercising daily, meditating daily, journaling one positive thing that occurred during the day, and a conscious act of kindness for another). “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness” (Harvard Health, 2011).

Another way to do this is by savoring the positive, focusing on it and keeping it in consciousness longer. For example, rather than gulping down a meal, sit and enjoy it. Like Thoreau suggested, slow down and enjoy life a bit more. Just be a bit more conscious while doing enjoyable things.

This post is not advocating anything like toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is best described as when negative feelings are negated with positive ones. If a client is talking to me about pain they experienced, and then tries to gloss over it with some positive statement (such as, “well, at least I haven’t been sick” or something similar) this can be toxic. A more harmful use of toxic positivity is when someone does it to you. For example, if someone is feeling badly about something that occurred and another tries to put a positive spin on it, this is toxic positivity. It negates what the first individual is feeling, and often leaves her feeling unheard or uncared for.

As with most everything in life, there is a balance between feeling negative emotion and focusing on the positive one has in life. The key is knowing which one is needed when. This requires a look at motives. Am I uncomfortable with what I am (or the other person is) experiencing? Am I avoiding pain? Am I experiencing negativity bias? Am I wallowing? Is my mental health issue affecting my perception? Sometimes with clients I will flat out ask, “what would be more helpful to you right now, me simply listening, or me providing other ways to look at the issue?”. This can be effective if one cannot get an accurate read on the other person’s needs, which is more often than most believe. It comes down to introspection. It may also require asking hard questions of another. In this way, I guess life is hard. You have to keep questioning yourself as well as circumventing yourself to help others. We have to assume the rewards of better communication, better relationships, and a more positive outlook on life are worth it.

Copyright William Berry, 2020

References:

Achor, S. 2011. TED Talk: The Happy Secret to Better Work.

http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html

Goud, N. 2009. Psychology and Personal Growth. Pearson Publishers. Boston MA.

Harvard Health, 2011. In Praise of Gratitude. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/in-praise-of-gratitude

Hanson, R. 2009. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger, Oakland, CA.

Rich, S. (2013). Sell Out. https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/sell-out-part-one

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 20th, 2020 at 10:25 PM and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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