Your Well-Being May Depend on the Small Stuff

Image source: Creative Commons

Have you ever been rushing out the door to go to work or appointment and you quickly grab your cup of coffee to have that last sip, and the cup falls out of your hand and spills on your expensive carpet. If you stop to clean it up, you could be late for your appointment. So you rush out the door in a dark frustrated, frame mind. When you get to your appointment, the person inquires how you are and you grumble it’s a crappy day.

Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, It’s All Small Stuff, was one of the researchers to bring to our attention to how small things that go wrong in our life can have a serious negative psychological impact on some people. His book tells you how to keep from letting the little things in life drive you crazy. He says you can learn to put things into perspective by making the small daily changes, Dr. Carlson suggests, amongst other things to “Choose your battles wisely”; Remind yourself that when you die, your ‘in’ box won’t be empty”; and “make peace with imperfection.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is an idiomatic expression, or a figure of speech, stemming from the fact that worrying often causes a person to perspire, or sweat. It means that, instead of fretting about the many small things that can cause concern, one should focus on what is really important. The phrase suggests that people should get their priorities in life in order, expending more energy on large goals, important considerations and the overall picture than on trivial issues.

Recent research studying how the brain responds to negative stimuli like that described above by University of Miami psychologists, researchers found that how a person’s brain evaluates getting negative stimuli — such as that dropped cup — may influence long-term that person’s psychological well-being.

“One way to think about it is the longer your brain holds on to a negative event, or stimuli, the unhappier you report being,” said Nikki Puccetti, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. “Basically, we found that the persistence of a person’s brain in holding on to a negative stimulus is what predicts more negative and less positive daily emotional experiences. That in turn predicts how well they think they’re doing in their life.”

“The majority of human neuroscience research looks at how intensely the brain reacts to negative stimuli, not how long the brain holds on to a stimulus,’’ said psychologist Aaron Heller, senior author of the study. “We looked at the spillover — how the emotional coloring of an event spills over to other things that happen. Understanding the biological mechanisms of that is critically important to understanding the di0erences in brain function, daily emotions, and well-being,” he added.

The researchers studied how different reactions in the brain to emotional pictures relate to momentary emotional experiences in daily life and even psychological well-being over time. They hypothesized that the amygdala, which processes and evaluates stimuli and supports emotion and memory, played an important role.

They analyzed data from participants’ midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, Initiated by the National Institute on Aging in 1995, a study which continued in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. MIDUS is of the most unique longitudinal studies on the health and well-being of thousands of adults as they age.

Puccetti and Heller analyzed data from MIDUS participants who had completed a questionnaire about their psychological well-being and, in a nightly phone call, reported the stressful events and positive and negative emotions they had experienced each day for about a week. The study subjects also underwent fMRI scans that measured and mapped their brain activity as they viewed and rated 60 positive images and 60 negative images, interspersed with 60 images of neutral facial expressions.

Connecting data from the questionnaires, the daily phone diaries, and brain snapshots from the fMRIs, the researchers concluded that people whose amygdala held on to negative stimuli were more likely to report more positive and fewer negative emotions in their daily lives — which spilled over to a more enduring wellbeing over time.

Conversely, the researchers found, people who reacted more persistently to negative images over time reported more negative and fewer positive emotions in their daily lives. “It may be that for individuals with greater amygdala persistence, negative moments may become amplified or prolonged by imbuing unrelated moments that follow with a negative appraisal,” the authors stated. “This brain-behavior link between left amygdala persistence and daily affect can inform our understanding of more enduring, long-term evaluations of well-being.”

And it could explain, Puccetti said, why some people might let a dropped cup of coffee ruin their day, while others wouldn’t give it another thought after cleaning the mess up.

How to Apply the Advice of Don’t’ Sweat the Small Stuff

The Workplace

Workers can be focused on the small stuff, such as the irritating personality traits of their boss, or co-workers, or critical remarks made by a team member, or if customers are involved, how they may make rude remarks. Focusing on these negative stimuli could distract workers from their job and rob them of any enjoyment. In contrast, workers, who more clearly understand the “don’t sweat the small stuff” concept, might be more clearly focused on the positive aspects of their work environment, and not hold onto or resent any negative stimuli. As a result they become more productive and dedicated workers.

An Intimate Relationship

In a romantic relationship or marriage, people also can choose whether to sweat the small stuff. For example, a partner who is constantly irritated and critical over the smallest things such as housework or food preparation could overlook the good things the other partner that is far more important in the relationship — affection, support, tolerance, compassion.

As a Parent

One parent who sweats the small stuff, for example, may focus solely on the fact that the children tracked dirt into the house or didn’t. Another parent, whose thinking is in line with the concept of “don’t sweat the small stuff,” might simply be glad that the children had a great time playing outdoors, and can positively encourage the children to help do any cleanup.

Far too many people take offense or are frustrated and upset with things the go wrong on a typical day that in the long run are not important. This also takes them away from focusing on the important things in life, which contributes significantly to psychological and emotional well-being.

As Richard Carlson says, “We live our lives as if they were one big emergency! We often rush around looking busy, trying to solve problems, but in reality, we are often compounding them.”



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others