Photo credit: Laurel Guido
This article explores:
It's so much easier for your day to be ruined than made. And it's so easy to notice what's inadequate about a situation or person. Why is this? The answer has to do with our desire not to be killed.
"Negativity bias" is a term that refers to humans' tendency to focus on negative experience The reasoning behind this is fairly simple: in nature, having anything good has the prerequisite of not being dead.
This means that the most important features of our environment (inner or outer) include anything perceived as a threat. The nervous system can and will react to words, thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and action. Everybody has different triggers based on life experience, but we also share common "danger" triggers such as screaming or the smell of smoke (when not near a known, controlled source such as a fireplace or barbecue.)
Simply, if we don't know about a threat, we can't respond to it, which means it might kill us. And then, because we have to be not-dead to have anything good (positive), we pay attention to bad things that might kill us (negative). And it doesn't end there--we remind ourselves of bad/threatening experiences we have escaped to reinforce the subconscious emotional memory whose function is to help us avoid similar situations in the future. So we might replay negative events ceaselessly, getting stuck in an addictive emotional-thought pattern in which it actually feels good to think negatively. Not uncommonly, we even take pride in our ability to recognize negative things. We think it means we're perceptive and smart. Sometimes it does. Sometimes.
Furthermore, as we live our lives with our negativity biases, we become habitually and socially conditioned by our own and others' behaviors to be negative. So this is why when you ask your friend about their recent travels, they tell you about traffic and long layovers and other problems that can't POSSIBLY be the most important or interesting things they have to share.
It's rooted in survival. So, don't be too hard on yourself for having negative thoughts. Negativity arises from those mechanisms that keep us alive. Negativity has its place in life. But more often than not, we're negativy-heavy, and most of us sense that we would feel so much better if we could lighten up. Luckily we do have the capacity to recognize when focusing on the negative is helping us survive and when it is just bringing us down.
Catching ourselves in negative thought-cycles is helpful but we don't often feel like there's much we can do about it. Inserting positive thoughts can provide a mild interruption, but what is really needed to get out of these cycles is another level of consciousness. This can be achieved through creative action (listening to/playing music or singing, writing, painting, drawing), meditation, conversation, exercise, sleep, or spending time in nature. BUT WAIT. Getting your pattern shift out of the thought cycle is EXCELLENT. But it is not the end of the story.
Whatever your negative spiral was about? It's points you toward something that needs your compassionate attention. So, during a time that you feel safe, calm, and not rushed, consider visiting with yourself about that topic. Maybe journal about it, or embark on a creative project that helps you walk through the conflicts and confusions surrounding the issue. This is transformation rather than temporary escape. The creative, reflective process changes something from being a pure problem/stressor to a resource for intellectual, emotional, and physical exploration. Transformation doesn't mean you will eviscerate negative feelings, but rather that you will be able to have a more flexible relationship with what could be very narrow, limiting, destructive patterns of thought and feeling.
Important to note is that "negative" emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and regret have their places and their functions in life. I am not trying to suggest we shouldn't have them. But there is a point at which they start to eat away at us or lead to violence, and developing skills in emotional intelligence so we can better work with them doesn't hurt.
Negative thought pattern action plan:
Want to better understand yourself, become more positive, and cultivate emotional intelligence? Check out the 21-day online meditation program "Foundations."