Negativity is everywhere. It’s easy to get bogged down in thoughts that can seriously affect our happiness and quality of life—thoughts that can impact our health, social interactions, relationships, and career success. The truth of the matter is that our brains are wired to default to the negative. As a result, people’s first response is often to say “no,” or to see the negative in a situation, without even having a reason.
This tendency is called negativity bias. When we have negative thoughts, our brains go into “fight or flight” mode. While this kind of stress response was advantageous to our ancestors who had to be aware of predators and other dangers, is not a helpful in our current culture. Living day-to-day with this stress is not good for our health or our social connections with others.
If we are unable to see the good in situations, never have expectations for positive outcomes, or can’t trust and have faith in people, we set ourselves up for failure and risk living an unhappy life.
Negativity bias was first documented by psychologists Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer in an article titled Bad is Stronger than Good.
They document how negativity creeps into our lives, making an impact on the way we see the world and interact with others. Here are some examples:
- We remember insults much more than praise.
- Our minds, if allowed to wander, will recall things that upset us more often than things that made us happy.
- Positive experiences resonate only when they occur much more frequently than negative ones.
- The brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. In fact, studies show that there is a stronger surge in electrical activity in the brain when we see a picture of something negative than when we see something positive.
So, the question becomes, “Can we do anything to retrain our brains to think more positively?” Happily, the answer is yes. Simply recognizing and identifying negative thought patterns as they happen can help us step back and turn them into positive ones. This is why it’s the second thought that counts.
It was once believed that the brain was hard-wired and could not be changed. But scientists now know that is untrue because of experience-based neuroplasticity. The brain is a muscle, and when it is used, it grows. Therefore, it can be trained. While our first thought may habitually be negative, we can train our brains to act on the second thought, which we can choose to be positive. This gives us the opportunity to turn pessimism into optimism and to tell our brain, “This is not who I am anymore.”
Following are some strategies for counteracting natural negativity:
- Practice Positive Affirmation Keep a mental list of positive things to think about, such as good memories, inspiring quotes, lines from favorite poems—anything that redirects your mind into a positive gear.
- Practice Gratitude We should take a few minutes to jot down things we are thankful for before we go to bed at night. People who consciously take time to reflect on these things have more positive thoughts, get better quality sleep, are healthier, and show more compassion toward others.
- Stop Complaining Complaining pulls other people into our negativity, is a passive response, and provides no end result. Instead, we should turn complaining into action by determining how we can make a positive change in the situation we are upset about.
- Do Something Nice for Someone Because of negativity bias, people will generally be more affected by the negative things we say than the positive ones. Some say that it takes three positive experiences to balance one negative experience and, in intimate relationships, the ratio is five to one. So, if we scold our children, criticize an employee, or argue with our spouse, we need to balance those negative interactions with positive ones to maintain healthy relationships with these people.
- Keep a Praise File When we’re feeling down, reading through a nice message or card someone has send us can pick us back up and put us in a positive frame of mind.
Changing negative thinking patterns takes conscious effort, but the effort is worthwhile as it can give us an entirely new outlook and improve the quality of our lives in countless ways. So remember: It’s the second thought that counts!