What were you thinking?

Photo by David Castillo Dominici Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by David Castillo Dominici
Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.
— Philippians 4:8 (CEB)

My mother used to describe me as a “happy-go-lucky” kid. And I suppose that by temperament, I tend to be more easy-going than not. But I am also quite capable of being a Grumpy Gus, making snarky and cynical comments when things annoy me.

And to be honest, I’m not that hard to annoy.

Psychologists describe what they call a pervasive negativity bias in humans. We tend to be much more easily and lastingly affected by negative events than neutral or positive ones; some researchers would argue that our brains are literally wired that way. After all, it’s the negative events, not the positive ones, that are more likely to threaten our survival — so it makes sense to devote more brain resources to them.

This has real world implications. Negative interactions exert far more leverage on how we perceive our relationships. As marriage researcher John Gottman has observed, successful couples have far more positive exchanges with each other than negative ones; couples who experience roughly equal frequencies of each are likely to be in trouble. We may take the positive parts of our relationships for granted, even as we stew and obsess over the negatives. (Interestingly, research by Laura Carstensen suggests that the direction of this bias sometimes changes as we age: when our focus shifts from how many years we’ve lived to how many we have left, we may begin to focus more on the positive.)

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that we should ignore or deny what is negative or threatening.  As the saying goes, you may know you’re paranoid, but that doesn’t prove they’re not out to get you.

But surviving is one thing; thriving is another.  Paul’s parting shot to the Philippians isn’t an exercise in the “power of positive thinking,” but a reminder that despite the things that distract and disturb us, we still live in a world suffused by the signs of God’s goodness and grace.

We may not be able to control all of our circumstances.  Bad things happen. But we can choose how we allocate our attention, and the resulting attitude tells a story. Do we really believe the story that the gospel tells, of a sovereign and gracious God who even now is working toward the full restoration of all that has been scarred and broken by sin? Or do we live out of the more dour narrative that life is just one irritating thing after another?

There are problems, and I need to attend to them. Not to do so would be irresponsible. But I also need to look beyond the problems, to attend to all that is true, holy, just, pure, and lovely — in short, to notice all that is worthy of praise.

Perhaps I have a right to my grumpiness.  But praise tells a better story.