Have you ever wondered why the same negative experience replays over and over in your head? Or, why news stories most often focus on the bad things that have happened rather than the good?
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.
It can be hard to keep a positive perspective when difficult situations arise – and let’s be honest, this past year has had plenty of difficult situations. This is where our defense mechanisms and perspectives can lead us astray. Our experiences can cause us to misjudge something new and act in an inappropriate way if we feel the situation could lead to stress or harm. 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.
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, it is not helpful in our current culture. Living day-to-day with this stress is not good for our health or our social connections with others.
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. For instance:
- We remember insults much more than praise.
- If our minds wander, we 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.
Here are some simple steps to retrain your brain for positivity:
1. 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 mode of thinking.
2. Practice Gratitude
Jot down things you are thankful for before going 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.
3. Look for good facts and turn them into good experiences.
Make a conscious effort to look for the positive in every experience. Take active measures to notice the good in both the world around you and in yourself. As you do this, pay attention to any resistance you encounter within yourself and acknowledge any instinctual attempts to dismiss or deny these positive feelings, but choose not to focus on them.
4. Do Something Nice for Someone
People are generally 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.
5. Savor the experience.
Give yourself time (at least 20-30 seconds) to fully enjoy happy or rewarding moments. By elongating our positive sensations, we allow more neurons to fire and wire together in response to the stimulus. This solidifies the experience in our memory. We are predisposed to collecting and clinging to negative memories, but we can counteract this by intentionally developing a more diverse stock of positive memories.
Changing negative thinking patterns takes conscious effort, but the effort is worthwhile as it can strengthen and widen our perspective, give us an entirely new outlook, and improve the quality of our relationships and our lives in countless ways.