Studies confirm it:
- We feel criticism more than compliments.
- We have a better memory for tragedy than triumph.
- We give more weight to potential losses than potential gains.
- We pay more attention to angry faces than happy ones.
- We have more richly descriptive vocabulary for negative experiences than positive ones.
Researchers call it negativity bias, and it has conferred a distinct evolutionary advantage. After all, if your ancestors hadn’t assumed that rustle in the bushes was a predator rather than the wind or noticed when someone was scowling at them rather than smiling, you might not be here today.
The problem is, because our attention is captured much more readily by the negative than the positive, it’s all too easy for the bad to become all that we see. Instead of keeping us on our toes, our negativity bias can start to drag us down. I see this often in those with addiction issues. Instead of being buoyed by the steps they’ve taken toward a better life, they focus on the wreckage of their past. Instead of seeing relapse as a temporary detour on the road to wellness, they see it as proof that they’ll never reach their destination.
This mindset matters, because if you look ahead and see only the negative, why keep trying? Conversely, multiple studies indicate that positive thinking not only makes us happier, it makes us mentally and physically healthier, more connected socially, more resilient and better able to flourish.
Some seem to have little trouble balancing out their inborn negativity, but most of us have to work at accentuating the positive. Fortunately, the growing field of positive psychology is showing us that it doesn’t take much to make a big impact on how we see our world and ourselves. These simple steps can help you start moving in the right direction:
- Notice the good.
Because our negativity bias leads us to prioritize the bad, we must train ourselves to pay attention to the good. Notice when someone doesn’t cut you off in traffic, not just when they do. Give yourself credit for the good choices you’ve made, rather than only berating yourself for the bad. When reading or watching the news, allow yourself to reflect on all the positive things going on in the world that simply don’t get as much screen time – the volunteers who bring help to the needy, the medical advances that daily save lives, the rescuers who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. After a while, you’ll be more able to see that the negative things in life aren’t the whole picture; they are just part of it.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
By writing down a few things you’re grateful for each day, you’ll become primed to look for the good around you, and that makes it much more likely you’ll find it. Writing about the good things in your life will also give you the pleasure of reliving the moments that inspired them. Pioneering research from Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, shows that those who replace negativity with an attitude of gratitude are more likely to reach their goals, focus less on hassles, sleep better, report fewer physical problems, and feel better about their lives, to name just a few of the pluses.
- Use prospection to your advantage.
Psychologists use the term “prospection” to describe our ability to imagine our futures, and it can be a powerful tool for good or it can sabotage our best efforts. Imagining a positive future, for example, acts as a kind of dress rehearsal, making it seem more real and, thus, more attainable. Researchers believe that’s why storytelling is such a powerful force in addiction treatment; it allows hearers to visualize themselves living sober lives. If we allow our negativity bias to carry over into our prospection, however, the result can be depression, which can lead to less ability to function effectively in the here and now. That starts a vicious cycle in which the imagined negative future sparks reactions that make that very future more likely.
- Keep a 3-to-1 ratio.
Because we give more weight to the negative, research shows it takes three positive thoughts to balance out one negative one. That means we must make a conscious effort to supplement our supply of the good. If you find yourself dwelling on a mistake you’ve made, for example, remind yourself of some things you’ve done right in similar circumstances. Over time, the practice will become habit and instead of being devastated by a critique or setback, you’ll be able to keep it in perspective.
- Never miss an opportunity to give sincere praise.
Seeing beyond the negative doesn’t just mean looking for the positive in ourselves; it means recognizing it in those around us. Share with others your appreciation for them, no matter the reason. It not only minimizes their own negativity bias, it’s a proven way to boost your good feelings. In a work setting, being liberal with well-earned praise pays off in productivity as well. A 2004 study of a group of 60 business teams found that those who performed best were complimented six times for each criticism. Those who performed worst had a ratio of 1-to-1 or lower.
Tipping the Scales to the Positive
Negativity isn’t all bad, of course. In the proper proportions, it can alert us to risks, help us evaluate choices, and teach lessons about what not to do. But negativity as a default mode keeps us on the sidelines, unable to believe in ourselves or others. Making an effort to tip the scales toward the positive shouldn’t be dismissed as an attempt to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Rather, it’s about removing the distortions that have been with us so long and seeing more clearly the ways in which we can make the most of our lives.