Dogs evolved to be happy. Why didn’t we?

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Is Darwin to blame?

As I’ve sat with hundreds of clients over the years, I’ve been stumped by one tendency that almost everyone shares:  we seem predisposed to think more negatively than positively in most situations. Whether we are “catastrophizing” our life situation,s or giving ourselves mental feedback that would scorch the ears of our enemies, our thinking is not always the most helpful or productive.

Perhaps Mark Twain summed it up best when he opined late in his life, “I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

Well, it turns out that Darwin’s theory of evolution could be to blame.  Our ancestors who realized there were dangers and actively worried about them were a lot more prepared when a stressful event happened.  Conversely, forgetting moments of pleasure was not correlated with living longer.  So, as a recent article in the Psychotherapy Networker put it, “We evolved with minds that are like Velcro for bad thoughts and Teflon for good ones.”

Pay attention: the next time someone gives you a compliment you will find twenty reasons to discount it.  But let a zinger come your way, and you might spend the rest of the day alternately arguing with it and believing it completely!

Those lucky dogs

Here’s how dogs handle it.  They get activated by a stressor, their arousal system reacts and then they reliably return to baseline shortly after the danger has passed.  I once saw a nature show about a wolf encountering a threat and tensing his entire body in response. When the danger passed, he let out an enormous shake, from nose to the tip of his tail, as a way to discharge the energy and go on with his day.  In contrast, we get stuck in the “on” position as we obsess about what happened, and what might be coming next.  If your dog is anything like mine, not only has he forgotten about the stressor, but he is already asleep!

There is hope

Stay tuned…in my next post, I give you some tips on how to outwit evolution and to copy that canine-like ability to roll with the punches without obsessing.

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