“May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back …”
I ponder this Irish blessing when I’m on a challenging bicycle ride into headwinds. This helps me to have the strength to succeed by reassuring me that there will be a tailwind. Without that reassurance, my thoughts drift towards the negative: “Why am I doing this? I should have stayed home, done more training, etc.”
When the tailwind arrives, not only do I get a boost that pushes me along, but my whole experience of the ride shifts dramatically. I think, “Wow, this is amazing, I’m so glad I did this.”
Recently, I broadened my perspective on this headwind/tailwind asymmetry, after hearing Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai, on the Freakonomics podcast ("Why is my life so hard?"). They present an analogy that appealed to me both as a bicyclist and a therapist.
They propose that headwinds are the challenges we face and struggle to overcome, while tailwinds are a helping hand that is often unnoticed. Our memory focuses on events that generate an intense emotional reaction. The experiences we remember most vividly are those in which we encountered difficulties.
I remember vividly a grueling bicycle ride around Crater Lake and how cold, tired and achy I was. However, my downhill glides are almost forgotten. When I look at the photos it brings back my sense of accomplishment and I smile.
Our focus on struggles makes it tougher for us to appreciate the opportunities we have received. Most of us tend to have a negativity bias, in which memories of our difficult times stick like Velcro, while the easy times slide away as if on Teflon.
This impacts how we view our lives, and often increases anxiety and depression. Life feels, as Toynbee said of history “One damned thing after another.” To compensate for this negativity bias, we can learn to focus on the roses rather than the thorns.
As patients describe their life history in counseling sessions, I notice what they tell me, as well as what they omit. Often they describe the hardships they’ve confronted. I encourage them to appreciate their ability to overcome these difficulties. I also explore areas in which they experienced help or boosts along the way that they never noticed before. As they become aware of these “tailwinds” it significantly alters the perspective of their entire life experience.
Since focusing on the positive takes more effort, I ask patients to bring photographs of their affirmative life experiences. Seeing and reviewing these encouraging moments provides a renewed sense of optimism and resilience. Another technique I share is adapted from Rick Hanson’s book, "Hardwiring Happiness." I use the acronym H.E.A.R.:
• Have a positive experience.
• Enrich it — notice it deeply, the sounds, smells, feelings it elicits.
• Absorb it — take a minute to just be with that experience.
• Remember it in difficult times.
This is a simple, quick method of depositing upbeat events into your memory bank. The good news is that with a little effort you can focus on the tailwinds and enjoy your ride.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Allan Weisbard counsels his patients to reduce stress while increasing their resilience. Check out his website HealthyOptimism.com to read tips on how to become more resilient.