Smile And The World Smiles With You

You are important. Not a social media “look at me” kind of important, or an “I run a company/country/the world” kind of important. But intrinsically important as an individual, unique human being living on this planet. Everything you do, say and think matters, because your every action and every word has an effect on everything else around you. Smile or scowl and the world smiles or scowls with you.

This is particularly true in a Democracy where your choices at the ballot box determine who will run the country and dictate policy for the next political cycle. Persuade enough individuals that you will make their life better by pandering to their particular set of prejudices, and you stand a good chance of becoming the next premier of your country.

Most of us live very much at the mercy of our fear based, non rational instincts. The Negativity Bias I wrote about in my last blog post, ensures that you keep the most challenging and dangerous thing in your life at the forefront of your mental dashboard all the time. When we were small furry creatures living on the planes and forests of prehistory it made sense to keep the large animal with teeth at the centre of attention. It was only through the workings of the Negativity Bias that we survived long enough to become 21st century humans. But in our modern world, the biggest threats in our lives are social rather than violent and it does us no good to put constant attention on the potential of failing an exam, losing a job or getting rejected by a cute stranger. It just makes you angry, agitated and depressed which leads to far reaching consequences.

Here’s how it works.

What you think changes how you feel
Messages from the brain activate all sorts of chemical and neurological changes in the body, preparing you to respond in the most effective way possible to the circumstances in which you find yourself. Think about threat, whatever that means to you, and your body will prepare to defend itself. Your heart will pump harder to send more blood around your system; your breathing will speed up to bring in more oxygen for your muscles; your muscles will tense as they fill with blood and get ready to run or fight; and your eyes and ears will magnify signals that indicate something is about to attack. Crucially the thinking, planning parts of your brain close down and the survival parts wake up. It’s much harder to think clearly when you’re anxious because your body feels so uncomfortable and the rational processing centres of your brain are literally off line. So when you feel threatened you tend to react to the world with a fully primed body, rather than respond to it with a fully primed mind.

How you feel changes how you behave
Reacting is useful in a life or death situation. If you’re facing a large animal with teeth, the less time thinking and the more time running the better. But reacting is not so useful in a social situation. If you’re facing your boss, less time thinking will make it more likely you’ll find yourself running down the corridor or punching him/her in the face. Because your brain is an amazing machine that organises itself to create shortcuts for the things you do most often, if you spend a lot of time living through the Negativity Bias, those short cuts are more likely to be for behaviours that are defensive. Therefore when the thinking brain switches off, you are more likely to react in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable and other people won’t like.

How you behave changes how you think
The thinking parts of the brain also happen to be important for social engagement. This is why when you get anxious or angry it’s much harder to open up to others, especially anyone who looks, thinks or behaves differently to you. Disagreement, contradiction, diversity – to a fearful mind, these are all interpreted as threat. And if you approach someone with suspicion, you are much more likely to provoke suspicion in return. Fear is contagious, vibrating from nervous system to nervous system, until the entire herd is spooked and panic is the order of the day.

Which brings me back to you and how important you are. Everything you do and say matters, because your every action and every word has an effect on everything else around you. The vibrations of your nervous system will spread fear or calm wherever you go, depending on the level of your anxiety and relationship with self. So if you believe the speeches of our leaders and imagine you live in a terrifying world of lack and violence, where dark skinned foreigners want your job and murderous terrorists want your life, you will most likely lose the use of your rational mind and scowl at the threat in the faces around you, provoking a scowl in return, proving you were right all along. In a Democracy you might even cast your vote for the person who will build a wall to keep you safe by keeping them out.

But if you stop, take a breath, find your feet and really look around, you might notice that nothing much has actually changed in your world. No bomb has gone off on your street and the people around you, whatever their colour, actually seem just like you. What a relief! And as your thinking brain and social engagement centres switch back on, your heart slows down and your breathing fills out, you might just enjoy the feeling of calm that enters your body and before you know it, allow yourself a smile.

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