Headwinds/Tailwinds and The Science Behind Negativity

Do you generally remember more bad events than good ones? Are you a “Glass Half Empty” kind of person? If so, you’re probably missing out on a lot of potential for success and gratitude in your life.

It’s what Dr. Gilovich and Dr. Davidai call the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Assymetry” in a landmark paper.

They’ve shown not only why we focus more on barriers than helping hands, but also that this asymmetry can cause huge problems in our lives.

To explain the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry, they use the clear analogy of riding a bicycle up a hill. 

If you’re riding your bike uphill and against the wind, you are going to notice the headwinds. You will definitely notice how hard things are. That’s fine – there’s’ nothing wrong with being alert to reality.

But the crucial question is this:  Do you also notice the trees or other good things around you? Do you allow yourself to feel gratitude for the simple fact that you have the time and health to ride a bicycle in the first place?

And  can you also cherish the fact that the wind and the hill are making you a stronger, more resilient, and more capable person?

Or do you just think, “I should be at home on the couch”?

“Basically what we’re trying to answer is `Why do people think that life is so hard for them’?”

Dr. Shai Davidai

And when you’ve gotten to the top of the hill and find yourself going downhill or along a plain with the wind at your back, do you enjoy the effortless pleasure of gliding along? Are you grateful for all of the many things that are making that moment pleasurable for you?

I’m guessing that you do a lot more worrying and talking about headwinds than you do relishing and sharing your tailwinds. I know I often find myself forgetting about the good stuff. The simple fact is that we think more about the things that make our lives harder – the headwinds – because bad things can kill us if we forget about them.

Not seeing the beautiful field on a sunny day will not kill you, you will just miss out on a bit of happiness and your life will suck more.

Not seeing the cobra in the field, however, will probably shorten your lifespan.

Thus we tend to devote lots of energy to potential cobras, and little energy to sunny fields.

The problems with this assymetry are many.

Firstly, your life is not objectively good or bad. It is only as good or bad as your perspective of it.

“I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you,
and I think to myself,
what a wonderful world.”

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong could’ve looked at the same field and thought about the weeds or the fact that smoke loomed from a distant factory polluting the air.

And then he’d have thought to himself, “What a terrible world”. With that perspective, he would have suffered more, and gotten less out of life. Then he would have been less creative. That would have deprived the world of his gifts. And etc.

The second problem with a headwinds focus is that it makes us ungrateful. If we’re always focused on the crummy things in our lives, we aren’t going to notice all of the goodness and grace around us. We loose sight of others, and turn inward, or we become bitter and indecisive like Hamlet who said, “[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

The third problem is that we can’t possibly do better if we don’t know what works. If you only see failure and trouble, the likelihood that you will have the mindset to overcome failure or to make your life (and the lives of those around you) better is pretty slim. However, if you take note of what works, your odds of improving things becomes pretty high.

So let’s aim for a balanced perspective; for symmetry; for reality. Let’s experience the headwinds and the tailwinds. When we search for symmetry, we ironically find that there are actually a lot more experiences and people to cherish than to bemoan.


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