Our generation wants to create change. We’ve learned from our peers, mentors and history books that questioning authority is often fruitful. At USC, recent events and scandals, climate change and political issues of the past few years have especially encouraged us to speak up for the change we want to see.
But such inspiration to make a difference comes with negative impacts on our attitudes. While it is good that we are fighting larger-scale issues, we’ve also developed overly critical eyes and an unhealthy tendency to complain about trivial matters.
There are countless issues that young activists have publicly voiced their opinions about, shaping our culture into one of critical thinking and growth. However, alongside this growth, we have developed a sort of reflex, by looking for what is wrong in every situation. There is a difference between working toward meaningful change and voicing irritation about minor inconveniences.
One recent change affecting USC students, in particular, is the modified line system at Trader Joe’s in the village. Over 400 students signed a petition to bring back the old line system, many expressing frustration on the basis of the idea that the new line system might be less efficient. While such a change has little to no effect on our well-being, there is a disproportionate amount of criticism and frustration with the issue. Even if the new line system does take longer, a few extra minutes in line should not irritate us so much.
Another source of frustration for USC students is the increased patrol of bike-free zones on campus. While the new Trader Joe’s line system is simply a strategy for efficiency, the bike bans are set in place for our safety. Although dismounting may be inconvenient, what’s more inconvenient is accidentally crashing into another bike during the crowded hours in Hahn Plaza. So instead of reverting to the idea that the bike bans are unreasonable and complaining, we should take a step back to appreciate that the rule exists for a reason.
Our tendency to think critically has potential long-term effects on our brains and mindsets. Anyone relatively familiar with the field of neuroscience has likely heard the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together,” which refers to the idea that the pathways which our brains use often are strengthened. In other words, our brains make physical and chemical changes to reinforce behaviors, so criticizing can become the norm over time.
In today’s political climate, thinking critically is often synonymous with thinking negatively, which means that our brains also learn to strengthen pathways involved with pessimistic thoughts. However, research conducted by positive psychologists including Martin Seligman shows that more optimistic thinking leads to success as well as improved physical and mental health, while pessimistic thinking is a risk factor for depression. Seligman and other researchers have also shown that if we have wired our brains to think negatively, we can also wire them back to be more positive.
From waiting in Trader Joe’s lines to riding to class through the center of campus, there are many aspects of our lives that we could improve by not fixating on minor inconveniences.
Rather than automatically identifying what’s wrong with a change, we need to first slow down and think about why these changes have been made instead of handing them the power to put us in a bad mood. Of course, we should continue to speak up and fight against significant issues in a reasonable way. However, as we constructively criticize the world around us, we should always consider whether our critical thinking is appropriate and worthwhile so that we do not reinforce habits of pessimism.