• By Dana Sparks

Something to Think About: Pleasant vs. unpleasant

July 13, 2017

a woman sitting outside in a field enjoying the sunrise
Dr. Amit Sood
asks, "Should unpleasantness dilute the pleasant or pleasantness dilute the unpleasant?"

Dear friend,

I like watching sunrises and sunsets. Even though I know that the sun isn’t actually setting, that the earth’s movement causes the sunset, I can’t help but see it as the sun moving down the horizon. The same is true regarding the illusion of pleasant and unpleasant. Even though I know that the biased prism of my mind (which habitually focuses on the short term and is limited by its evolutionary endowments) creates the certainty of pleasantness and unpleasantness, I can’t help but see life’s gains as pleasant and losses as unpleasant.

I also have a biased system that discounts the pleasant and inflates the unpleasant. This is the automatic me. I can’t delete my innate software. But I can upgrade it.

I should recognize that pleasantness and unpleasantness are contextual and not absolute. A bright light that may feel pleasant on a cloudy day may be undesirable on a day you have a migraine headache. Research shows a sweater previously worn by a celebrity gives much greater pleasure than an identical new sweater. The same sweater once washed fails to give the extra pleasure. My perception of pleasure thus depends on a number of factors—the actual experience, its historical context, the rarity of the event, its dollar value, and more.

I should also recognize my innate negativity bias. I attend to, think about, trust, and remember negative information much more than positive information. I make negative opinions based on rumor or misinformation far faster than I make positive opinion based on facts. I get past the pleasant without savoring it. I inflate the unpleasant and dwell on it.

Awareness of this bias allows me to overcome my instinct of diluting the pleasant with the unpleasant. Instead, it empowers me to pick a new habit—diluting the unpleasant with the pleasant. It offers me a new lens to look at the world and provides me immediate access to a happier alternative.

I know that as I get older I will likely get better at noticing the positive and ignoring the negative (at least that’s what the science says). I, however, don’t have the patience to wait twenty more years. I wish to dilute my unpleasantness with the pleasant today. Becoming aware of my predispositions and my ability to choose is a good first step. I hope this knowledge inspires me to train my attention and mind-set so I can bring into this very moment the wisdom I might get when I am very old. I wish the same for you.

May the pleasant and good decorate your day and your mind.

Take care.
Amit

Read Dr. Sood's blog posts and follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.

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