A colleague told me about a lawyer friend of hers who broke out in a cold sweat when she took her kids to an amusement park. Instead of being able to relax and enjoy a fun family day out, all she saw was risk and panicked!
This doesn’t surprise me (been there done that). When my sons were little, one disappeared at a regatta. I immediately lost the plot imagining all kinds of horrible outcomes. Minutes later (after what felt like an eternity) I found him safe hiding behind a parked car.
Most parents can to relate to this. You’re having a lovely day out and then the unspeakable happens. My even-natured husband at the time, managed the whole thing completely differently. He didn’t panic and run around like a crazy person. He kept his cool. I’m still slightly annoyed with him over that.
Looking back, I believe my crazy busy lifestyle, played a big part in my response. I lost perspective and immediately jumped to worst-case scenarios, like the lawyer mum at the amusement park. I’m inclined to believe both of us over-reacted, because we’d become too risk-averse.
Lawyers (I’m told) are trained to look for and reduce client risk. It’s an essential part of their job. Recently while describing the benefits of mindfulness to a small group of lawyers one commented “so according to you, mindfulness will compromise me doing my job” (or words to that effect). He wasn’t the first lawyer to question whether reducing a negativity bias and becoming less risk averse, might be career limiting (could dumb him down at work).
Practising mindfulness (I want to assure you) won’t turn you into an ineffective, passive, smiling blob, who overlooks and dismisses real risk. Instead, it gives you the tools to over-ride an unhelpful risk focus. You can still identify risk, you just won’t make it your modus operandi.
So why are we all so risk averse in the first place? From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. You need to be cautious and pay attention to what can harm you. All of us are designed with a negativity bias, 5:1 in favour of seeing risk over opportunity. Your genius brain it turns out, is more interested in you living a long time (keeping on breathing), than in having a good time (stopping to smell the roses).
Miss an opportunity today and there’s probably another one around the corner. But if you miss a risk, it could be life limiting (in the extreme case that’s death!).
If your job requires you to focus on risk, you’re inadvertently priming your already risk-averse brain to up the ante. This skews your perspective and spills over into your personal life. Then you start over-estimating, or imagining risk that isn’t there.
Quite simply, when you repeatedly tell your mind to look for risk, eventually you can’t see anything else.
Consequently, the quality of your life, health, and happiness suffer. It’s hard to relax, let go and enjoy life when you’re living on high alert.
Learning how to leave your mind alone for short periods, by practising mindfulness, allows a clearer, calmer, less agitated mind to emerge, which counterbalances your negativity bias. Mindfulness practices (like focusing attention and letting go of what’s unhelpful) activates your left prefrontal cortex (involved in approaching the good) and simultaneously swamps your right prefrontal cortex (involved in avoiding the bad).
Consequently, you experience more feel-good moments and you’re less likely to jump to worst case scenarios, like I did. Over time you can re-programme yourself to notice all the seemingly small insignificant everyday things that make life more enjoyable.
The super-power of mindfulness is not in pretending that risk doesn’t exist, or getting rid of your mind’s bias. It’s being able to bring more awareness to when you’re exaggerating, or imagining risk, and choosing not to overlook feel-good experiences. Because you will, if your negativity bias is running the show.
Kerene Strochnetter is the Managing Director at Mindful at Work. Mindful at Work delivers programmes across New Zealand and Australia to produce unprecedented levels of engagement, performance and well-being.
Workplace mindfulness is not just learning how to meditate. It is a robust set of practices (generated from comprehensive research) used to align values with behaviours and transform workplace culture. You can find out more about Kerene and Mindful at Work here.
It’s all about changing the way you work to positively influence workplace culture.