Why do we fixate on old mistakes, revisiting them over and over in our minds rather than letting them go? Why can one tiny negative remark from someone we love weigh on our mind rather than all the positive compliments they’ve shared with us? Why do we still cringe with embarrassment over a humiliating childhood moment?
I’ve got two words for you… Negativity Bias.
Now, don’t be alarmed. Negativity Bias is just a fancy psychological term that describes our innate tendency as human beings to pay more attention to and give more energy to the negative things rather than the positive things in our lives. It simply means we place higher importance on them.
Now, from an evolutionary standpoint, negativity bias, at one time, probably served us very well. Way back in the day, there were tonnes of negative things we had to focus on… I’m talking about properly dangerous things like predatory animals and the like. Our ancestors, bless them, needed to have a stronger neural response to the stimuli that were connected to danger. This meant that those who were aware of threats had a higher chance of survival. Makes sense, right?
Well, today’s reality is vastly different to what those folks were dealing with. We don’t have giant predators like lions and bears trying to hunt us down at every turn. But, whether we like it or not, negativity bias is biology in action and has been ingrained into our psyche. In fact, research shows that negative information acts as a magnet to our focus. So, we need to figure out some practical ways to live with it. If we don’t, it can be quite detrimental to our wellbeing.
"The brain is like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity." - Rick Hanson
But, where there’s a will, there's a way! When we mindfully shift our focus from the negatives and cultivate gratitude and a positive outlook on life, we can proactively balance out this natural asymmetry.
So, where do we start?
Try these 3 simple things each day to overcome negativity bias. Before long, you’ll be flexing those powerful positive vibes.
1. Meditate on a happy memory.
Alright, we know that remembering the positive moments is more demanding on our poor brains. But the reward for mastering this is well worth the effort. We just need to make a conscious effort to memorise the good times rather than the bad.
Start by lighting some incense and breathing deeply. We suggest Home for this exercise. Get comfortable in the present moment. Choose a wholesome, positive memory from your past (you can choose one from as far back as you wish). Think of any small acts of kindness from loved ones like a time they offered a very thoughtful gift. Or, focus on a beautiful moment from your childhood days like cooking with your grandparents or playing games with your brother or sister. Close your eyes and visualise this memory.
Try to recall the surroundings, people, places, feelings, colours, tastes and sounds connected to this special event. Strive to collect as many details as you can while you submerge yourself in your memory. Sink into it and let it wash over you. Take your time to savour and cherish it.
2. Evoke a Positive Body Emotional Response.
Negativity bias does this thing where it can elicit physical and emotional states way out of proportion to the stimulating event itself. We often end up feeling extremely low or stressed out, and sometimes it feels like there's nothing we can do about it… right? Wrong! Our bodies, as complex as they are, can be easily deceived. By making a few physical changes when negativity bias is gripping you, you can evoke a positive emotional response in your body. Very cool.
Did you know that we can trick our brain with only 20 seconds of smiling? That;s pretty amazing, huh? Smiling stimulates oxytocin, our "feel good" hormone. Try smiling to yourself when you feel negativity bias overcoming your thoughts. Trust us, it works.
Specific breathing techniques can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of sending the body into a rest state. So, next time you feel anxious or stressed, become incredibly mindful of your breath. Send laser focus to it. Try to prolong each in-breath and each out-breath using the diaphragm (you want your belly to rise and fall as you breathe and not your chest). Focus your attention only on the inhale and exhale for the next couple of minutes. That will help elicit calming signals which move our anxious, tense bodies into a safe and relaxed space. Remember, you can breathe through anything.
3. Express gratitude.
"You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive." - Dr. Richard Boyatzis
Gratitude is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot. But, there is a good reason for that. Practicing gratitude can literally rewire the neural pathways so that focusing on positivity becomes easier and easier each day. Start by focusing your attention on the good things that happen around you but go unnoticed.
Obviously, try to be grateful wherever you can in your day. Your bed, your warm shower, your beautiful body, your windows that let the natural light pour into your home. Literally give thanks to it all - out loud if you have to. But, then, extend these private thanks out into the world. For instance, if you have a favourite coffee place, next time you're placing an order, make sure to thank the barista. Look into their eyes, smile and say thank you.
Make it a challenge to find as many reasons to say "thank you" to others (and to yourself) as you possibly can. I'm sure that if you put your mind to it, you'll start noticing more and more goodness hidden in the seemingly mundane activities.
Negativity bias is a real thing, yes, but it’s not as horrible as it sounds. By becoming aware of it, you can overcome the impact it has on moments when it’s simply not needed. Consider this idea: How would your life change if you become aware of this bias and consciously sought ways to override it? Commit to the exercises above and we promise you will see for yourself.