Yesterday I saw someone lament on social media that we were still talking about the royal wedding a whole four days later. He was over it, people. Let’s get back to the real world with its runnels of car-engulfing lava and stomach churning political climate! Part of me could absolutely relate. I, too, get consumed with all the wrongs that need to be righted in our world. Plus, I am not a royal follower. Sure, I watched the first season of The Crown, but when it comes to actual regal stargazing…meh. So, I certainly had no plans to set an alarm clock for the crack of blue dawn to watch American Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry, while in my pajamas and a homemade fastinator. I would be happy to catch the highlights on my Twitter feed and I might even find some good fodder for snarky, funny Tweets. The main objective for me on Saturday morning was to sleep in like a queen, not watch a princess get married! My body had other plans, however, and I was wide awake last Saturday at the chime of the wedding bells. Not to be a total curmudgeon, I brewed a pot of coffee and flipped on the live stream.
And guess what? It was captivating. And beautiful. And the gospel choir. And the black Episcopalian minister. And the dress. And the hats. And their smiles. And the kiss. OK, OK…I was swept away in it. So much so, I felt sheepish admitting it. Then I got curious about my feeling of sheepishness and embarassed. We often experience collective grief for traumatic situations that don’t directly impact us. We are rightly heart-wrenched and gutted at the seemingly endless stream of school shootings, police brutality, opioid epidemic horrors and civil unrest. Why do we feel guilty when we experience collective joy? We need to allow ourselves to feel MORE collective joy, not less.
Why, you ask? Because it’s good for us, dammit. Body, mind and soul. Even better, there is science to prove it. (Yay, science!)
Negativity Bias and Lizard Brains
It is not our fault that we are more drawn toward the negative. We are hard-wired for it because it has protected us since the dawn of time. Our brains constantly scan the environment looking for danger–we will scan over the good and joyful to zero in on the negative. To continue the royal theme, there is a reason why the Princess felt the Pea in her mattress. We feel the dry, hard pea more than the fluffy feathers surrounding us. This was an important life-saving skill for our ancestors. Focusing on looking for the tiger that might pounce might have made our loin-clothed ancestor miss the bushes full of berries or the beautiful possible mate perched by the waterside–but he lived another day to find more berries and more mates because he avoided the tiger.
What happens, however, when our exposure to information and stimulus tells our brains that we are ALWAYS in danger? Rick Hanson describes the result as a universal learning disability. We become unable to step out of this “red zone” of reactivity; we engage in negative rumination. Negative rumination is that deep rut of overthinking, the picking on an emotional hangnail, the incessant worry and self criticism. Regardless of whether the negative stimulus is large and personal (an acute illness or job loss), is large and (mostly) impersonal (a plane crash or national crisis), or is small and personal (a slight by someone at work or an annoying driver), it all gets intertwined into how we react to everything. We get stuck in our negativity bias rut and we become prone to anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping.
The Collective Joy Cure
In yoga, there is something called the counter-pose. I am not a yogi by any stretch (see what I did there?), but my understanding is that a counter pose stretches the body in the opposite direction of a previous pose in order to bring the spine back to neutral. It can even alleviate pain that was caused by a pose. It is an intentional practice of returning to center. This is also how we counter unhealthy negativity bias. We soften and return to be responsive instead of only reactive.
We can learn to notice and relish in the positive experience in a way that returns our mind to center. However commonplace or everyday that experience might be (that first sip of coffee in the morning, the friendly exchange with a passerby, or joke that made you laugh), those are experiences that can help carve out new paths and connections in the brain. When you experience them, stay with them for a little bit. Stretch out the experience. Relish it. Ruminate in the positive of your day. Replay the friendly exchange from time to time throughout the day. Take a moment a few times a day to visualize the blooming flowers you passed this morning in your front lawn. It feels a little bit weird, right? Unnatural even. We are so used to stretching in one direction it feels stiff and odd to stretch in the other. That stiffness is what we need to lean in to.
Ok. What in the world does this have to do with the newly betrothed Duke and Duchess of Sussex? It is this: we are social, collective beings. We always have been. Our joining and belonging fills a very primal need in us for physical and emotional safty. When we come together physically, spiritually, virtually, and emotionally to feel joy, it is curative. The joy is stretched out through our sharing of it, discussing it, replaying it. It creates a feedback loop within the collective from which our neuroplastic brains learn. It is the basis for all of our collective rituals; the birthday parties, weddings, graduations, and even festivals, church-going and concerts. They all weave joy more deeply into our consciousness.
The world can be a dark and dangerous place. We do need to stay vigilant to the ills that plague us. Choosing to lean into joy–both the personal and the collective–does not diminish that capacity. Indeed, it fortifies us and gives us hope for the times when we do have battles to fight and losses to mourn.
So with that, cheers Duke and Duchess. We are happy for you.