Failure can be good for you. This is not easy to read if a relationship has just ended or your business has just collapsed. And of course, it would be better if these things had not happened. But failure, from time to time, is inevitable and, depending on how we respond to it – it can have an upside. Here’s why.
Our brains have two primary mindsets that underpin our whole lives – one is called the approach mindset and the other the avoidance mindset. The approach mindset is linked to our brain’s reward network – the feel-good “pleasure centre” that switches on when we anticipate good things – success, sugar, sex – that are rewarding to us. This is the go-getting, forward-looking, goal-seeking, reward-relishing circuit of the brain that is closely linked to the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine .
The avoidance network, on the other hand is linked to our fear of punishment – of foreseeing risk and bad things happening. It is linked to the fight or flight chemical messenger of the brain, noradrenaline/norepinephrine. To get through life, these two circuits have to be in approximate balance – too much reward seeking and we become blind to risk and can end up crashing spectacularly, as happened in the financial crisis of 2007/8.
Most of the time, for most people, they are in rough balance, which is how the brain likes it, because these two circuits are in competition with each other in the brain – they inhibit each other and in a healthy situation, you get an amiable peace treaty between the two.
But when we fail, the avoidance network gets a boost and the approach network a beating. And when it has the upper hand, the avoidance network not only makes us more anxious and lower in mood, it also makes us more likely to remember past failures and past bad times, and makes it harder for us to anticipate future good times.
But there can be some hidden blessings for you in this state of avoidance and failure which you can harness if you let yourself. Here are some of them:
- Self-awareness is increased when the avoidance network is dominant. Failure can make us reflective and insightful in a way that can really foster future personal growth and also helps us learn from our mistakes.
- Empathy receives a boost with failure – and this can endear you to friends and colleagues. Too much success can make people big-headed and unpopular while failure can help forge bonds with people who could be your allies for future success.
- Creativity can be boosted when our happy headlong success treadmill is switched off. Success narrows attention and so can put creative blinkers on us, while failure broadens attention and can open up possibilities we never thought of.
- Norbury, A., et al., Dopamine regulates approach-avoidance in human sensation-seeking. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2015: p. pyv041.