Do you tend to pay more attention to the bad things that happen in your life than the good things? Have you realised that when something good happens, your brain forgets quickly? This is what in psychology is called negativity bias and we are all hardwired to experience it.
Negativity bias is defined in psychology as the tendency of the brain to focus on things we could classify as bad or negative and discard or pay limited attention to positive information. We have a more intense emotional reaction to negative events compared to similar positive situations. In other words, our brains are hardwired for negativity.
Hardwired to survive
If you think about it, it makes sense. We are designed to survive, and only being alert to possible dangers can accomplish that purpose, while the positive things are not going to help us survive. Focusing on the good events can distract us from spotting real dangers, and that is all our brains care about.
This brain design was perfect for human life decades ago when a threat could be found around the corner, like a hazardous animal. This tendency to see the negative helped our ancestors to listen to a noise that could indicate a potential danger or see suspicious movement in the distance.
Today this human negativity bias doesn’t seem so helpful, but our brains haven’t evolved as quickly as our society. The good news is that the brain is plastic, and we can overcome this negative bias.
How does the negativity bias manifest?
Negativity bias can manifest in any aspect of your life. They are often related to these cognitive distortions. Here are some examples:
- If we receive ten compliments and one complaint, we will remember more of the complaint.
- A wandering mind is more likely to think about negative things than events that made you feel good.
- We quickly forget about the events that made us happy in comparison to problems.
- The brain is always in survival mode, looking for possible risks and dangers around, even if there is none.
- We react stronger emotionally to negative circumstances than to positive ones.
- We like to complain about the things we don’t like.
How do overcome the negativity bias?
Overcoming this negativity bias is possible, but we need a purposeful effort to do so, as it won’t come naturally to us. Some simple exercises you could do to start focusing more on the positives of your life are the following:
1. Interrupt your negative bias
Become aware of when you are focusing more on the negative than the positive. Self-awareness is always the first step toward change. Once you recognise your negativity bias, you can start making different decisions, you can decide to stop dwelling on the negative aspects of a situation, and look for the positives as well, to a more balanced picture.
2. Start a gratitude journal
The literature shows how gratitude helps individuals to feel more content and satisfied with their lives. I encourage you to write down three things you are grateful for each day and see what happens. It can be something small, like an enjoyable coffee in the morning, or something bigger, like being grateful for the love of a loved one.
3. Write three things you liked about your day
Similarly, to the gratitude journal, reflect every night about your day and the good things that happened to you. Again, this can be very small, but even the smallest things can bring you joy and peace.
4. Write three things you like about a closed one
Appreciate the people in your life by thinking of the traits you like about them. This tool can be used if you are angry at someone, and you can only remember the bad things about that person. Stopping and thinking of the good things about the person as well can reduce the anger and allow you to respond rather than react.
5. Savour the moment
Negative events and the emotions that those brought are quickly stored in our memory. To store positive events in the long-term memory, we need to hold in awareness of those situations for a dozen more seconds. Savouring the moment means stopping and enjoying the moment for longer than we normally would. This way we process the event in our brains and the pleasant emotions we felt at that moment. You can savour any moment, from a cup of tea to a walk on the beach. Just remember to stop and purposefully enjoy the moment.
6. Every time that you complain about something, say ‘I am grateful for my life’
Complaining is okay, there is no harm in expressing your frustration. However, when we complain we usually are focused on a very tiny part of what is going on. Now, you can balance out your inner state by using positive affirmation. Every time you notice you are complaining, that is okay, just notice it, and remind yourself of the phrase ‘and I am grateful for my life. This way you expand your attention from a tiny part to a broader picture. You are not so caught up in the frustration of the event.
7. Remember something nice that happen in the past
Our brains react more strongly to negative events than to positive ones. This means that we are more likely to feel anxiety, anger, frustration, etc. All those emotions are okay and adaptative. Now, you can bring some other emotions to your mind and body like pleasure, joy, contentment, etc. by remembering a past time when you felt like that. Your brain not only memorises events, but it also memorises the feelings you felt in those events. Bringing nice memories back can be a powerful tool to feel pleasant feelings again.
8. Write a list of your strengths
Have a list of your strengths for whenever you face a problem, and all your brain can see are your deficiencies. In situations like that, you can read the list and remind yourself of your strong points, which can help you overcome the situation.
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