Feel your tailwind ==> be happier

So, every now and then I come across some research that kind of blows my mind with just how spot-on it is.  Today, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast on the latest research agenda of Thomas Gilovich (the man who disproved the hot hand in basketball– great book, too, How we know what isn’t so) about how we conceptualize and respond to the “headwinds” and “tailwinds” in our lives.

Here’s Gilovich and Lee Ross with a handy summary:

Tom, along with social psychologist Shai Davidai, has conducted research showing that it is easy for all of us to arrive at an imbalanced assessment of the opportunities we’re received and the burdens we’ve faced.  Think of it this way: When you’re cycling or running into a stiff wind, you’re made aware of it gust after gust.  You might even say to yourself, “I can’t wait until the course changes direction and I have the wind at my back.”  And when the wind finally is at your back, you’re grateful—for a moment.  You quickly adapt to it and soon fail to notice it’s even there.

What’s true of headwinds and tailwinds is more broadly true of most of the benefits we receive and the obstacles we must overcome in many areas of life.  Like headwinds, obstacles are “in our face,” reminding us of their existence, because we have to attend to them in order to overcome them.  Many of our benefits and privileges, in contrast, are easy to lose sight of because we typically don’t have to attend to them.  We just profit from them.

This asymmetry in what’s salient can limit gratitude and fuel resentment, making people feel that they’ve had it harder than others.  Tom and Shai have shown, for example, that sports fans tend to think that their teams have harder schedules than their opponents, Republicans and Democrats each think the electoral college landscape favors the other, and siblings believe, like the Smothers Brothers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rYLPUgNKKc) that “mom always liked you best”—that their parents did not bestow the same favorable treatment on them that they showered on their brothers and sisters.  This is also seen in large institutions where members of one unit (sales, engineering, human resources) typically believe that they have it harder than those in other departments.  It reaches its peak in Trump’s distorted view of the world, or that of actor Rob Lowe, who was quoted in the New York Times as complaining about the “unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people.”

[Also a nice summary from Jonah Lehrer— he’s back?!]

This so resonated with me as soon as I heard it.  I joke with my family that I’m “the happiest person they know.”  Maybe not (my wife loves to point out when I get angry), but I am genuinely a happy and positive person (this genetic variant is surely a key).  But, I am happy, and I realized that I actually do not fit the descriptions described here.  I am totally onto the tailwinds.  I don’t think other parents have it easier (I’m financially secure and have a great co-parent, and mostly pretty good kids), I don’t think other college professors have it easier (my job allows for amazing work/life balance and studying American politics is surely a lot easier than many other fields of academic endeavor), I don’t think other sports fans have it easier (heck, I’m a Duke basketball and Ohio State football fan), I’m pretty sure the electoral college really does favor the Republicans as was made eminently clear this year,  and I’ve always thought my parents liked me best.

Anyway, point being, that without all that much effort, I am genuinely aware of and appreciative of the amazing tailwinds in my life.  And even when I am frustrated by headwinds, I recognize that they are the mildest breeze in contrast to the gale at my back.

It was awesome to be able to discuss this in-person with DJC and I was speculating on how genes might be related.  Maybe my “bliss gene” (the earlierr link) makes it easier for me to focus on the tailwinds.  A little googling tonight, and I came across Arthur Brooks‘ nice column on gratitude, which indeed suggests there’s likely something genetic at work:

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.

Well, there you go.  I’d be surprised if this wasn’t me.  So, I probably have the “gratitude” gene and the entirely separate “anti-anxiety/bliss” gene.  And straight teeth, too!  Damn, that’s awesome.  And, you know what, I’m really, really grateful.

And if this isn’t you.  And, it’s probably not.  I’m lucky (and grateful), the great news is that you can practice gratitude and become happier.  There’s tons of social science research on this.  I’ve actually been doing a daily oral gratitude journal with two of the boys for a few months now.  As of tonight, one of the things we are grateful for needs to be a “tailwind.”

Anyway, fascinating, truly life-changing research.  Take heed.

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