This column will not be about cows.
Full disclosure time: I am a worrier. I worry about the cleanliness of my house. I worry about getting a flat tire in the middle of the night on the way to a calving. I worry about my peanut-allergic child going into anaphylaxis at soccer practice. I worry about my never-ending to-do list and the feeling that no matter how hard I try I’m always letting someone down.
I know in my brain that none of this is useful, that stewing in my head does not protect my son from peanut exposure or my tire from a random puncture wound. And yet, I worry . . .
So, not in unexpected fashion, I looked for science to help me with my worry habit. In my research on the brain, I found lots of examples of habits one can create to live a happier, less worrisome life and be more productive and successful in the process. Lots of those habits are ones I’ve heard before: exercise daily (does rectal palpation of dairy cows count?), sleep more (only if someone watches my two small, “sleep-depriving” children), and eat healthier (you want me to cut back on caffeine?). When I hear this advice, I get a little snarky, because while I do my best, there is just only so much I can reasonably do. I would hazard a guess that the same is true for many of you in the dairy farming community.
Then, I stumbled into the work of Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained “happiness researcher.” His book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, discusses a different set of habits designed around changing your brain.
According to Achor, doing this one thing daily for three weeks can turn a low-level pessimist (like me) into a low-level optimist. It requires two minutes of your time — you could do it while brushing your teeth with literally no effort. No barbells, seaweed greens, or 7 p.m. bedtimes needed here.
Triple the gratefulness
The secret is gratitude, and the practice is simple. Every day, you scan your day and find three things for which to be grateful. It can’t be the same three things every day. For example, kid, kid, husband, done . . . that does not work. The trick is to find three unique things that came up during the course of your day. Think about them and why those things made you grateful.
That’s it. If you wanted to further enhance the practice, you could write them down, but just thinking about them daily for a few seconds can change your outlook, according to Achor’s research.
How is this possible?
Our brains are hardwired with a survival mechanism to remember the bad stuff that happens to us over the good stuff — it’s called the negativity bias. This makes sense in our evolutionary history as a species. It would be much more important to remember which berries give you horrible stomach pain versus those that tasted kind of good.
This holdover from our evolutionary past, however, does us no favors in this day and age. It’s this negativity bias that’s responsible for my worry about conversations that went wrong, mistakes I made, or things that could happen. My brain is hardwired to search out the bad and then stew on it so I really, really remember it.
Reset brain circuits
Turns out, when we do this daily gratitude practice, it bypasses that default setting. It tricks us instead into searching for the good. I know at the end of the day, I have to list three new things for which I’m grateful, so I’m going to be looking for them every day as I go about my life. That means I start to see more good all around me in little things, instead of only noticing what goes wrong.
In addition, just by the simple act of thinking about the positive experiences again, it rewires our brains to start to remember the positive over the negative. I can hijack my “factory settings” so that when I remember an event from the past, I see what went well, not just what went wrong.
This shift makes me happier, and as Achor describes, a happier me is more productive, creative, and successful. It’s a radical shift in thinking. It’s not achieving the next best thing that will make you happier, it’s being happy that will help you achieve the next best thing.
Make a choice
I suspect if you made it this far, you are thinking one of two things: 1. Maybe that concussion she got caused more damage than she realized, or 2. Sounds good and all, but does it work?
It’s like any new research we bring to your farm — it can look good on paper, but you won’t buy it until you see if it works on your farm. I am a small sample size, but I can tell you it’s helped me. I have been a card-carrying member of the pessimist club my whole life, and while this practice has not made me into Pollyanna, I find it easier to find good instead of just worry about the bad — especially bad that has not even happened yet.
Try it out for yourself and let me know how it works for you. You can find out more at shawnachor.com or do an internet search for him and find his TedTalks or podcasts. We could all stand to be a little bit happier, right? And really, what else are you doing while brushing your teeth?
For me, my personal gratitude practice is made easy by my clients. My daily list of gratitudes is almost always full of dairy farmers, their families, and their cows. Thank you for what you do to provide safe, nutritious food to the world — for that, I am grateful.