Sunday 25 September 2016

Breathing space: Glass half full

Shifting your perspective has powerful results

Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard pose for photographers during a photo call for the film Macbeth, at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 23, 2015. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard pose for photographers during a photo call for the film Macbeth, at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 23, 2015. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Last week's red carpet photos of the Cannes Film Festival reminded me of the year I visited the event and, specifically, the day my friend and I decided to visit the extravagant Hotel Martinez for lunch.

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We didn't have very much money (and even if we did I still wouldn't pay €30 for a sandwich), but we wanted to gawk at the glitz and glamour of it all and we were soon seated in between actors, film directors and supermodels.

I can't quite recall what it was that we ordered but I remember it being fairly meagre - maybe 'deux Coca Cola et un panier de pain'. I also remember my friend shrivelling with embarrassment and me being too starstruck to care.

"He smirked as he walked away," said my friend as the waiter darted off after taking our order. "He knows we have no money." Ordinarily I would have concurred, but I was much too swept away by the fabulousness of it all, and besides, it was clear to me that we were viewing this situation through the very narrow filter of an inferiority complex.

Had we been partying in the hotel until the wee hours the night before, I reasoned, we would have considered the waiter's smirk more a knowing smile. Had we been militantly dieting to fit into our gowns, we would have misinterpreted the waiter's smirk as a weary acknowledgment of the lengths women will go to in order to look good. Presumption colours our judgments.

We tend to talk about perspective from a pessimism/optimism point of view. The glass is either half full or half empty. Yet there are countless other perspectives that subtly shift our viewpoints. The cynic will look at the glass and wonder if the water is contaminated. The inquirer will ask who drank the other half.

By the same token, jealous lovers will always find what looks like lipstick on a collar, just as anxious employees will misinterpret every ad hoc meeting with their boss as an impending reprimand.

Every situation is viewed through a personal filter, which is why it's prudent to challenge these perspectives from time to time and identify the obstacles that we put in our own way.

It's just as important to examine the perspectives of others. To truly master cognitive empathy and walk in someone else's shoes, we have to go beyond questioning their actions and instead step into their viewpoint.

Psychologist and self-development author Dr Wayne Dyer writes, "If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change". Even those that dismiss the self-help industry as airy-fairy would have to concede that this statement is supported by all manner of empirically proven phenomena, broadly known as cognitive biases.

Examples abound. There's the 'confirmation bias', which is our tendency to search for, or interpret, information in such a way that it confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

Then there's the 'negativity bias', which shows that we are more influenced by things of a negative nature (hence the old media adage 'if it bleeds, it leads'), and the 'halo effect', which is a cognitive bias in which we let our initial positive first impression of a person, place or thing strengthen our subsequent evaluations.

In the workplace, many of us have observed the 'bandwagon effect', otherwise known as 'groupthink'. This is what happens when a group of people around a boardroom table nod emphatically simply because everyone else is.

Perhaps scientists will one day identify the 'martyr-bias', which is the flawed belief that the office will implode if we leave an hour early.

Another interesting, and proven, example of this illogical thinking pattern is 'observational selection bias', which is what happens when we begin to notice things in our environment and wrongly assume that the frequency of these sightings has increased.

An example of this bias might be seeing the car model you just bought when you're on the road or reading about a writer whose work you recently became acquainted with every other time you pick up a magazine.

I wonder if this one can be tweaked. If we are more inclined to notice things when we become aware of them, can we shift our perspective to encourage more of what is lacking in our lives?

We all have limiting beliefs - 'employers don't hire people who are past the age of 50' / 'there are no eligible men in Ireland' / 'I can't lose weight'. What would happen if we believed otherwise? Would the observational selection bias open us up to opportunities in the same way that we begin to notice red Ford Mondeos when we start to look out for them?

Those who get past velvet ropes without a wristband advise us to 'walk in like you own the place'. Elsewhere, we've observed that when we feel good, we look good, just as we know that an attitude of gratitude makes us feel as though we have so much more.

Sometimes gaining perspective goes beyond diminishing our problems. Sometimes it can help us realise that we don't have any problems at all.

"Some people grumble that roses have thorns," wrote Alphonse Karr. "I am grateful that thorns have roses."

Modern self-help authors talk about the magic of manifestation, but we all know that magic is just a trick of the light. The magic happens when we shift our perspective and change the filter through which we look out at the world.

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