Perhaps the most significant of the many weak points in human cognition is our persistent tendency to overlook the absences of things. To notice what’s there but not what isn’t there.
We notice problems, but seldom notice the absence of problems. We notice when things are working inharmoniously, but seldom when they are working harmoniously.
A mother can spend years on end disappearing problems and cleaning up messes without receiving a drop of real gratitude, but the instant the laundry baskets are spilling over or the sink is full of dishes she’s going to get an earful from someone.
A politician who does their job well, remains without scandals or malfeasance and eliminates problems before they become an issue will not make news headlines.
Make something beautiful and post it online and a hundred positive comments can be eclipsed in your attention by a single mean spirited one.
We rarely appreciate how wonderful and miraculous it is for all our cells, systems and organs to be working in perfect harmony, but as soon as we get sick our health moves to the forefront of our attention.
We fixate upon the thoughts, feelings and sense impressions which appear in our field of consciousness, and can spend our whole lives overlooking the boundless spaciousness in which that field of consciousness appears.
We get so hung up on our little quibbles with life that we look past how intrinsically blissful it is to be alive.
It’s not hard to guess why our evolutionary heritage would have given us such a heavy cognitive bias toward things over their absence. If you are an organism in a prehistoric world full of saber-toothed monsters that see you as nothing but an easy source of calories, your primary concern is going to be scanning your environment and watching for anything out of the ordinary. The absence of any immediate problems doesn’t mean you get to relax; the ones who do are next up for dinner.
Our brains evolved in that environment, and they’ve left us with a vestigial bias that is ill-suited for modern life. We are rarely being actively preyed upon, and hyper-vigilance is hardly ever a necessary posture for us to take.
So now we tend to spend a lot of mental energy stressing ourselves out for no good reason.