Scientific research validates yet another of my tendencies: I like to protect myself by preparing for the worst-case scenario. Unlike idealists, I imagine, I tend to expect that what can go wrong, will. I travel frequently, for example, and between the cab rides, the shuttle buses, the airplanes, the weather, and all the possible human and technical error involved in all of that, it is something that I get to honor the many time commitments I have in one part of North America or the other. When I expect error and nuisance in general, I prepare myself, at least psychologically, to tolerate whatever occurs.
Tolerance of whatever happens is a pretty powerful ability! When things go better than expected, something really fun and important happens: I get high! Dopamine surges through my brain. This neurochemical release heightens my sense of aliveness and physiological well-being as I revel in a thought like, “Wow. Things aren’t as bad as I thought they would be.” In that moment, it becomes easier for me to do what more naturally happy people seem to do all the time. I focus on the good.
Happy people, according to Dr. Cunningham at the University of Toronto, as well as his colleagues around the world, aren’t naïve or blind to negativity. They don’t ignore threats. In fact, their brains become equally activated to both positive and negative stimuli. They’re just better at seeing the good, at focusing on positive things and filtering out negative ones.
I have had plenty of surprising moments of joy in my adult life, that’s for sure, but given how cynical I truly can be, I’m grateful for researchers like Yael Niv at Princeton University who found that, “Happiness depends not on how well things are going, but whether they are going better than expected.”