If you go to Yahoo.com, or any other news landing page, 99% of what you see will be negative. The latest serial killer mystery, a horrible story about a parent neglecting their child, or perhaps (definitely) something disgraceful happening in politics.
Even if we go outside the realm of current events: have you ever noticed that when someone says a negative comment about you it sticks for days, or even months? And yet, the compliments we get seem to slip out of our memory immediately after entering?
There’s good reason for this, and unfortunately the reality is a bit grim. You see, there’s this thing called the negativity bias. We all ascribe to it. We evolved this way in order to avoid harm. At our very core, all we are trying to do is survive.
That’s right, we can all thank our cave dwelling great-great-great x1000 grandparents for this. You see, back in their day, the ability to think negatively was simply a means to keep themselves safe; optimists back then didn’t last very long. For example, if Susan the optimist thought the lion outside looked like a particularly friendly lion and tried to pet him, Susan likely wouldn’t make it back to the cave in time for dinner, and therefore wouldn’t be able to pass on her less-than-stellar genes. Thinking negatively didn’t make our ancestors Debbie downers, it made them survive.
The negative stuff also has a tendency to stick in our memory better than positive stuff. For example, if we have a great day with someone, but they say one off-hand comment that bugs us, we tend to categorize/remember the whole experience as bad. Again, our ancestors are at fault. If they ate an apple from a tree and got violently ill, they are more likely to remember that tree, and therefore not get sick (or die). They are less likely to remember all the good trees with the tasty apples.
Research backs all this up.
Psychologist Dr. Rick Hansen from the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, says that the amygdala (part of our brain that looks like an almond and regulates our emotions) uses almost TWO-THIRDS of its neurons to look for bad news. Negative events also get stored very quickly in memory, while postitive experiences need to be held in awareness 12 more seconds in order to be put in long term storage. This is PROOF that remembering positive crap is harder and takes more effort. (This is a statement by me, not the actual researcher)
K, are you all ready for some good news yet?
GREAT! I have good and…sorta good news.
Good news: We can overcome this tendency!
Sorta good news: You’ve gotta WERK.
Listen, we can’t overcome thousands of years of evolution with a snap of our fingers. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take conscious effort. Here are some tips to get you started, but remember: YOU MUST PRACTICE THEM AMAP (as much as possible.)
Tip #1: Pay attention.
- What are you paying attention to in your life? Are you giving equal effort to the both the good and the bad? Remember: the bad will come easier. It’s easy for us to dwell on a crappy work day. It’s harder to be grateful that we can afford to get a drink with a friend after the crappy day to blow off some steam.
- Pay attention to your inner dialogue. How are you categorizing your experiences? Remember: the experience itself is not what sticks in your memory and has an impact on you, it is the way you perceive the experience. We have control over this! We can give certain aspects our attention, and we can choose to let others go.
Tip #2: Be purposeful in what you do, say and watch.
- What you do: Who are you around? A bunch of debbie downers? If you’re having a tough day or week already, don’t go to dinner with your friend whom you know will just bitch the whole time. Find someone to laugh with. Find someone who you can celebrate joy with.
- What you say: While I am always a fan of a necessary vent, don’t drag it on and on. Say or write down what is frustrating you, then move on. Research shows that you more you complain, the more likely you are to have negative experiences. Make sure you taking time to celebrate the good days, not just lament about the bad ones.
- What you watch: Staying up to date on current events is important…in small doses. The news, as we discussed, is mostly negative stories because those are click bait and get the most views. (Except for the last 3 minutes of the program where they tell a story about a dog and a turtle who are best friends. Maybe just watch the last 3 minutes?)
Tip #3: Write it down
- If you are having a hard time simply thinking about the positivity in your life, try writing it down at the end of the day, or the end of the week. Some call this a gratitude journal, some call it jotting notes in your phone in the dark before bed (my personal favorite).
- If you have a negative experience, work through it on a piece of paper. This will take some of the load out of your brain. Also, maybe after you work through it, you’ll end up with a new perspective on the situation entirely.
You can do it guys! We’re not in caves anymore, let’s try and be positive!!!