And what to do instead
Being told to look on the bright side has never made me feel better. In fact, it makes me feel a lot more like having a tantrum about whatever is bothering me than I did before getting this advice. I used to judge myself for this, because it seemed really juvenile. Like why wasn't I able to accept the positives in my situation? Was I such a brat that I needed everything exactly my way?
It turns out, though, that the problem wasn’t with me—or with you, if you have had the same experience. It’s baked into the phrase itself. Trying to look on the bright side actually makes the problem you were having in the first place seem worse.
At least we have zoom!
Here’s why. Whenever we make a judgment about something, our brains start looking for evidence to back it up. And they don’t do it impartially. They ignore whatever would contradict our judgments, and they interpret everything else in whatever way most supports our judgments. This is called cognitive bias, and it's operative in our brains all the time.
So let’s say I’m upset because I can't see my family and friends, because they live far away and it’s a global pandemic. I complain to someone about it, and he says, “Look on the bright side, at least you can see them on video calls.”
The net here seems like it’s positive, because before this advice I just had a problem, but now I have a problem that at least isn’t as big as it could be.
But that’s not actually how it plays out in our heads. Because when we think “At least we have zoom,” we’re telling our brains that a) not seeing people in person is a problem and b) zoom does not truly fix that problem.
Now think about that in terms of the brain's evidence-seeking function. Under the guise of trying to feel better, we’ve accidentally sent our brains looking for evidence that a) the situation sucks and b) what we’re doing to mitigate the situation also sucks, just not quite as much.
So every time we try cheer ourselves up by saying, “At least we have zoom,” our brains get busy finding all the ways that video calls aren’t as good as what we really want. And because cognitive bias means our brains are super good at selectively weighing the evidence, we don’t even notice any evidence that doesn’t fit this view.
Meanwhile, we think we’re doing something positive for our mood, so we expect to start feeling better. But because of the piles of negative data our brain keeps dutifully assembling, we feel worse and worse. So then we judge ourselves, because we're failing to appreciate what we do have.
It’s like we’re trying to put out a fire with lighter fluid while yelling at ourselves because it’s not going out. No wonder it makes me feel like having a fucking tantrum.
The best way to escape this cycle is to turn the evidence-seeking function to your advantage.
Rather than trying to find the upside to a problem, get your brain looking for evidence that it’s not a problem in the first place.
This may seem impossible at first. Like how could not seeing people I loved in person for a year not be a problem?
But as I’ve mentioned, our brains are fucking ingenious at finding evidence to support whatever judgments we make. When I asked myself, What if not seeing people in person isn’t a problem? I started finding tons of evidence that I have actually strengthened my connections with people throughout the pandemic.
Plus, unlike with the thought, “At least there’s zoom,” there’s no coded instruction to my brain to find negative data. I send my brain off in search of signs I’m connected to people, rather than signs that the ways I can connect are sub-optimal.
The difference may seem subtle, but it’s got compound effects.
The more evidence you find to support a negative judgment, the more unquestionable it seems. And stronger the judgement, the more incentive you brain has to find evidence to support it.
Luckily, the reverse is also true. Once you start looking for ways you are not actually having a problem, the snowball effect starts to work in your favor. The judgment strengthens and the evidence becomes easier to find, and on and on.
What makes “look on the bright side” feel like good advice is that it hints at something I think we intuit to be true. That is: our interpretation of whatever is happening is a big part of how that thing feels. Looking on the bright side turns out to be a bad tool for shifting our interpretation but the intuition holds. And it's amazing how powerful that shift can be once you stop inadvertently looking for negative evidence you never actually meant to find.