Like it or not—and this one’s really hard to like—we all have a negativity bias. While we appreciate positive experiences, we are much more finely attuned and give much greater weight to negative experiences like fear, threats, or even just bad news.
According to neuropsychologist Rich Hanson, our “brain is like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones.”
Or as my non-neuropsychologist dad used to say, “It takes five pats on the back to make up for one, ‘Oh, crap.'”
That’s also why we tend to dwell on what other people do wrong. Every mistake, every misstep, and every slight is like a threat or potential loss, if only to our self-esteem.
As Hanson writes, we’re built that way: Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than positive stimuli. Negative events are also quickly stored in your long-term memory while you need to actively think about positive events for twelve seconds or more in order for them to be transferred to your long-term memory.
And that’s why an otherwise good day can be so easily spoiled. We give tremendous weight to negativity.
And so do the people around us—especially the people we work with and are close to, because to them our words and actions already carry substantial weight.
But we can fight back. Tomorrow let’s all try an experiment. Make it a “No Negatives Day.” Commit to focusing on the positive and discarding negative thoughts or feelings as quickly as possible.
Granted, that won’t be easy. We have centuries of evolution to overcome.
One trick is to take on a difficult task, because when we focus on something mentally challenging, our brains divert resources that were previously devoted to experiencing a negative emotion. (That’s one occasion where our inability to multitask effectively is actually a good thing.)
Shankar Vedantam suggests performing a quick mental exercise when you get upset. Count backwards from 100 in steps of seven. Multiply 14 times 23. Try to remember the lines of a poem you memorized in school. When you do, you “forget” to be angry or sad: It’s like counting to 10, only harder.
Another trick is to just pause for a second and apply a little perspective. Even though they sometimes do hurt your feelings, your family loves you. Even though they do occasionally make mistakes, your employees and coworkers accomplish amazing things.
Even though you had to wait a couple minutes longer than you wanted for the check, your meal was superb.
Tomorrow, do your absolute best to focus only on the good. Dwell on every positive thing that happens for at least 10 or 20 seconds. Make sure the experience transfers to your long-term memory. If something really bad happens, do a little mental exercise and then toss in a dose of perspective to help you calm down and refocus.
Just as importantly, don’t say anything bad about anyone or anything. No gossip, no snippy comments, no complaints… only positives. That will not only help you feel better, it will help others feel better too.
Then tell people what you’re doing. Ask them to hold you accountable. Ask them to adhere to No Negatives Day, too. Turn it into a game that everyone wins.
While all of our lives could be better, the lives we’re already living are pretty amazing. If only for one day, fight your negativity bias and let yourself—and the people around you—enjoy what we have.
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