Studies show that focusing on other people's goodness makes for a healthier and happier mental state.
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I vividly remember complaining about a fellow college student behind her back: “This person is so strange, so annoying, so off-putting.” And then I slowly got to know the person I was complaining about, and realized what a generous, loving, and truly good person she was. I felt terrible for all the times I had belittled her.
It was experiences like this which made me realize how freeing it is, and how much better I feel, when I focus on the good and beautiful qualities of a person rather than their faults or oddities. I did a little digging, and have found that some current psychological studies, as well as our faith, concur with me.
Studies in modern psychology posit that thinking positively makes for a healthier and happier mental state.
A study from 2008 looks at negativity bias in human development. Negativity bias is a term that refers to how men and women often naturally focus on the negative experiences and emotions in their lives and downplay or ignore the positive. This tendency is present from a young age, but it is possible — and important — to actively change this focus.
Many studies are focused on broad categories like negative emotions or negative experiences in general, and the consequences of negative thinking come to play even in physical health. There are studies finding negative thought patterns linked to dementia, and overall mental health decline in the elderly, as well as complications in mental health for all people.
The Catholic faith also provides plenty of examples of charitable thinking leading to peaceful lives.
In reading the lives of the saints, I’ve found many men and women who adopted the “focus on the good in people” mindset and were examples of calm and love to those around them.
Mother Teresa, St. Teresa of Calcutta, looked past the physical brokenness and ugliness of those dying on the streets. She saw their dignity and humanity and treated them with love and respect.
St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite priest, had many enemies because he was trying to help reform the Carmelite order. His enemies — often other priests — made up stories about him to try to ruin his reputation and thus stop his efforts to change the order. But John would not speak badly of those maligning him or allow anyone around him to speak ill of these people. He tried to protect the reputation of those who hurt him throughout his life. His peace and joy were a testament to those around him.
There are a few ways to start changing the way you think about the people around you (and thus de-stress your life).
One way is to acknowledge to yourself the people you complain about most often. Is it an ex? A coworker? A relative? Is it actually a lot of people? Consider each person in turn, and write down what good qualities they have. You might have to start out with very superficial things, but try to look deeper and recognize the inner good they possess.
Another way to change your thought patterns, based on the suggestion in this article about negativity bias, is to think about something you are grateful for and spend 15 seconds in that place of gratitude whenever you notice yourself turning to negative thoughts. This is a practice you would need to do multiple times a day to reverse the negativity trend, and as with forming any habit, it might take a while to get used to. But don’t give up! Small steps every day will add up quickly.
St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, pray for us!