Leonard had an eye for what was wrong. His negativity bias was stronger than he would have liked. He’d spot anything that was “off” in the present and anticipate anything that could possibly go wrong in the future. This wasn’t just occasional catastrophic thinking, but a habit of perception that affected everything he saw.
When he walked in the apartment he’d notice immediately that his girlfriend hadn’t washed her coffee cup and miss completely the fact that she’d bought flowers for him. He thought about everything that could go wrong on their upcoming trip, and not a bit about what could go right. His conversation was dominated by what other people were doing wrong and what he might get wrong if he wasn’t overly-conscientious.
Worse, he couldn’t be happy until it was all fixed. And since that was impossible, he eventually got depressed.
This is the 2nd in a series on compulsive personality and depression, more specifically why people who are compulsive are particularly susceptible to depression. The perfectionism and conscientiousness so characteristic of the compulsive personality can lead to a satisfying life if managed well. But far too often they lead us to focus on what’s wrong. And that makes us very unhappy–if not completely depressed.
The Roots of Negative Perception
If we get lost in depression and want to find our way out, it helps to understand how we got there, our past. By our past I don’t just mean abandonments, neglect, trauma, loss, or when my sister tortured me when I was a kid (she didn’t, by the way).
I mean that we also need to take into consideration the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution before that that brought us to where we are today. This past has shaped the genes that determines our personality at least as much as what we encounter after birth.
You come with a long history, like it or not.
It’s easy to be mislead by a simplistic emphasis on what’s happened to us. While environment or nurture certainly shapes the genes that we’re born with, focussing exclusively on these may leave us victim to circumstances, rather than empowering us to discover and develop who we are naturally.
Part I: Low Mood Can Compensate for Unrealistic Expectations
In my last post I wrote about how low mood has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. By reducing our energy when we run into a wall, low mood has helped us to let go of rigid positions and walk away from unrealistic expectations. Understood this way, we may be able to see a purpose in low mood rather than slip into depression.
Since compulsive people tend to set expectations too high, they often experience compensatory low mood when they themselves or the world doesn’t meet those expectations. But because we think of ourselves as enlightened, reasonable and “modern,” it never occurs to us that our psyche might be trying to tell us something.
Scanning for Trouble
In this post I’ll focus on another way that evolution has shaped us: the compulsive tendency to focus on what’s wrong, and to focus on that so much that it prevents better mood.
Nature has programmed us to scan for things such as:
- physical dangers
- social status (our own, those close to us, and those we feel competitive with)
- depleted resources.
We were more likely to survive and pass on our genes if we focused on these. For some of us, this focus has remained dominant, even though it doesn’t make us happy.
One study found that people with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder had more accurate visual performance than those that didn’t. But this blessing can become a curse if you can’t close your eyes or focus on something other than problems.
How Evolution Shows Up In Your Home
Here’s what concentrating on what’s wrong can look like: You focus on:
- The kitchen not being spotless because it could mean that there are dangerous germs lurking in there somewhere,
- Your husband has questionable social skills so your status is low,
- Your wife seems to care more about her friends than you so she’s not reliable,
- Your checking account has less than you’d like so you’re in danger of depleting your resources.
Beneath all this is an “instinct” to make things “better” so that we’re more likely to survive. Taken too far, we lose the original point for having a kitchen, a partner or a bank account.
The Compulsive Negativity Bias
There is no single gene that causes this attention to what’s wrong. It more like a module in the brain, a network of neurons caused by an assortment of genes, which predisposes us to focus on “dangers.”
To simplify greatly, this module causes the negativity bias. We’ve developed so that avoiding bad situations motivates us more than taking advantage of good ones.
You won’t survive a fire if you don’t avoid it, but you will survive if you don’t notice the blueberry in the bush. Notice how you feel in reaction to each of these photos:
Does one grab your attention more than the other?
It doesn’t matter if this negativity bias module makes us happy or not. It makes our genes more likely to get passed on if we’re always focused on what needs fixing.
But, you might say, lots of people could care less when things aren’t right. For sure. They were absent the day those genes were handed out. Not everyone is like this.
And other people seem to have gotten more than their fair share of these genes.
We call these people obsessive-compulsive.
Nature’s Deceptions: Scan, Fix, Repeat, Get Depressed
You’d think that nature would give us a payoff for noting what’s wrong and fixing it, but it’s stingy. You get a brief pay-off, but it won’t last long.
These modules often fool us. They cause a delusion that leads us to do things that will improve our chances for survival, imagining we’ll feel good. But we often end up feeling very dissatisfied soon afterward.
We start out thinking, “This is gonna be great!” But the pay-offs for the cleaning binge or the work binge and the anger binge don’t last long and you’re looking for the next thing to fix to get another little hit of endorphins.
Scan, fix, repeat. If you’re lucky. More likely you’ll scan, feel frustrated, repeat.
This gets depressing after a while.
We’re lured into trying to fix, but soon after, we experience dissatisfaction. If we were completely satisfied by fixing problems we’d just sit on our tush and live happily ever after once we indulge it. And then we wouldn’t pass on our genes.
This is especially depressing for compulsives because we are under a second delusion: we imagine we can and should control it all. And of course we can’t.
Can I do anything about it?
Here are the three factors that determine how happy or depressed we are:
- Environment, family, circumstances social setting–nurture
Our conscious intentions, our choices about how we think and what we do, also determine which end of the happiness spectrum we live on.
Research psychologist Sonia Lyubomirsky has concluded from her research that while we have a set-point of happiness determined by our genes, this accounts for only about 50% of our mood. Circumstances determine only 10%.
Intentional activity, what we do and how we think, accounts for 40% of our happiness.
How to Achieve Change
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a metaphor to help us understand how we change. He suggests we think of ourselves as composed of an elephant and a rider. The elephant is this older, genetically determined and socially programmed part of us. The rider is the part that with intention, persistence and determination can slowly train the elephant to go in a different direction.
Leonard Trains His Elephant
Here’s how Leonard became less focussed on what’s wrong:
- He identified as often as he could when he was scanning for what was wrong.
- Name and tame. He called it his hyper-vision.
- He tried not to judge himself for his negativity bias.
- It was a part of him that just needed to be reigned in.
- He let himself feel the emotions–fear and anger–which he tried to avoid by judging and fixing.
- He tried to remember the original purpose of his hyper-vision and use it only where appropriate.
- It was very helpful for work itself, but terrible when applied to his co-workers.
- He practiced the most important skill a compulsive can develop: letting go.
- It felt extremely strange, but he had to let go of his sense of ethical duty to make sure that everything was done properly.
- He put two more meaningful goals in its place,
- an intention to value peace of mind over fixing everything, and
- an intention to value everything he had.
Come visit again when we continue with Part 3: Stepping Off The Compulsive Hedonic Treadmill.
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