When you live abroad you are constantly making choices. You choose which country to live in with your partner, which language(s) to speak at home, and how to continue your career in a totally new context.
We are careful to weigh our options and think of the consequences. We strive to make the best of it. Despite all of this, the inevitable ups and downs of life abroad can test us in ways we never imagined. There are times when we are frustrated, defensive, exhausted or downright unhappy.
Today I am sharing with you one choice that can quite literally change your life and make you notably happier.
And it has to do with – how shall I say this – dog doo.
A quick story to illustrate – and then I´ll share the science behind how this technique can change your brain and make you happy.
It was 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
It was February but already quite hot. I headed out for a jog and the humidity was extremely low. My lungs were filled with dust and my nose was assaulted by the rancid odor from the open canal two feet away. There was a mangy dog at the side of the road with mites so bad I could see the blood on his sore ears from across the street.
I rounded the corner and began my laps around a nearby football field.
I looked down.
Garbage. Dog crap.
I heard myself thinking, “Niiiiice.” I detected a subtle underlying tone of “poor me.”
I knew I had a choice in that moment.
I kept running, took a deep breath, and asked myself one question, “What is good right now?”
And then I looked around.
This beautiful scenery was there the whole time, and I just noticed it.
This new perspective sent me into an amazing mood. I spent the remainder of my jog smiling or giggling at myself for initially focusing on garbage. I was present. I was happy.
I still had to hop over dog crap, mind you, but that was nothing compared to the beauty surrounding me.
This positive shift is possible every day in your own life.
Here is how it works.
We know from Positive Psychology that the saying, “What you see is what you get.” rings true. This natural bias shows up in what´s called observation selection because our brains simply cannot attend to every level of detail possible in our surroundings. So we can actually function, our brains are “forced” to be selective.[1. https://www.actionforhappiness.org/news/the-science-of-happiness]
We also tend to seek out what we´re already thinking about and this allows the object of our focus to take on serious weight. Honing in our attention also makes it very hard to notice other things. (You might recognize this as the “new car” syndrome, where you suddenly start noticing the type of car you are considering everywhere you go).
This tendency in the brain is compounded by a negativity bias. Likely to aid our survial, humans tend to pay greater attention to the bad stuff – and this can strongly shape our everyday experiences.[2. https://io9.com/5974468/the-most-common-cognitive-biases-that-prevent-you-from-being-rational]
I don´t like to be held hostage by my own mind, especially when it overemphasizes the negative and stops me from fully experiencing the positive aspects of reality that surround me.
There is a way you can trick your brain for greater happiness.
In fact, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky´s reseach suggests that while there are common factors that influence happiness, 40% of our capacity for happiness is within our power to change.[3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-happiness/200805/what-influences-our-happiness-the-most]
A great start in creating more happiness in your life is to do what everyone from Eckhart Tolle, to Dr. Martha Beck and buddhist monks around the world recommend: Notice your thinking.
All you have to do is ask, “What am I choosing to focus on – the good or the bad?”
This question is especially important if you live abroad. Adapting means getting used to different ways of thinking, behaving, speaking, or simply being. When you are on your journey of learning about and living among different cultures, there is potential to judge these differences. We can easily slip into negative thinking if we are exhausted, or worn down by constantly bridging gaps between conflicting values. When you get caught in “comparison mode,” it´s easy to dwell on what isn´t quite as good, not available, missing or “too much” in your current location.
This is draining. It also feeds our reptilians brain´s hunger for the negative. This not only limits our happiness, it is a limited way of seeing reality. There is good AND bad. Hard AND easy. Ugly AND beautiful. Benefits AND disadvantages.
Next time you catch yourself in a downward spiral, check whether your brain has been hijacked by negativity. It can do a lot of good to lift up your head and try to see the beauty that is right in front of you.
Actively shifting focus on what is good right now can mean the difference between only seeing dog waste, or this:
It is your choice.
p.s. I know when you´re overwhelmed or bogged down by big challenges, it is hard to shift perspective on your own. Contact me if you are looking for a sparring partner, support and accountability to create positive changes in your life.