“I'm thinking once I learn to grow right where I'm planted Maybe that's when life starts getting good”
~ Lauren Alaina: Getting Good
On any given day people seek support from therapists to help make things ‘better’ whether it be relationships, communication, problematic behaviours, self-confidence and, of course, mental health and wellbeing. Whilst therapists do help empower people to making positive changes in their lives, often we find ourselves redirecting people’s attention to what’s already working well in their lives. When we’re challenged by stressful events, we tend to lose sight of the good things or the bigger picture. Our brains are hardwired for survival, so they register negative stimuli (e.g., comments, situations and feelings) more readily than positive stimuli. The brain’s ‘negativity bias’ encourages us to pay greater attention to the bad things that happen (or could happen), making them seem much more important than they actually are. Being aware of our brain’s tendency to fixate or dwell on the negative is important because this bias strongly influence how we think, feel and act.
Have you ever noticed that the sting of being reprimanded feels more intense and lingers longer than the feeling of joy or pride when we receive a compliment? In almost any situation, we’re more likely to notice negative things and recall the details of the event more vividly. For example, you might be having a great night out with your mates when someone makes an off-the-cuff remark that annoys you. For the rest of the evening, you find yourself stewing over what they said. The next day when someone asks you how your night was, you reply that it was awful, even though you had a lot of fun despite that one negative incident.
Back in the day when a hangry sabertoothed tiger or dire wolf could roll up on us at any moment, paying attention to danger and signs of threats was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and threats were more likely to survive. The brain’s negativity bias is designed to keep us safe. It helps us to makes sense of the world and to prepare us for the uncertainty of the future. Whilst most of us no longer have to live in a constant state of high alert to ensure survival from scary snarling beasts, research shows that, across a broad spectrum of situations and events, we humans tend to:
Pay more attention to negative situations than positive situations;
Learn more from negative outcomes and experiences; and
Make decisions based on negative information more than positive data.
Given this, our negativity bias can have a profound influence on areas such as:
1. Relationships, e.g., expecting the worse in others and negatively anticipating how they’ll behave during our interactions. As a result, we tend to engage in these interactions armoured up, with arguments, hurt feelings and resentment often ensuing.
2. Decision making, e.g., research suggests that people consistently place greater weight on the negative aspects of a situation than they do on positive factors when making decisions. Our tendency to overestimate the probability and consequences of negative outcomes can impact on the choices we make and the risks we’re willing to take.
3. Perceptions of others, e.g., we tend to focus more on negative information when evaluating others. Studies have shown that when given both “good” and “bad” adjectives to describe another person’s character, participants give greater weight to the bad descriptors when forming a first impression.
The brain’s negativity bias, whilst designed for survival, has the potential to wreak havoc on our metal health and wellbeing. If we’re not consciously attending to the influence of our brain’s negativity bias on our thoughts, feelings and actions, we can:
Get stuck in repeating cycles of negative thoughts;
Contribute to unhealthy dynamics in our relationships; and
Be incapable of maintaining an optimistic outlook on life.
The good news is, we can balance our brain’s natural tendency toward overly negative thinking, and we can live purposefully, joyfully and safely. It all starts with awareness. I’m constantly banging the drum for the importance of paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, bodies and behavioural tendencies! I bang this drum so often that I’m sure many of my dear clients wish I’d learn a new beat :-)
When it comes to balancing the negativity bias of the brain, we need to start paying attention to the types of thoughts that run through our minds. Our long-established thinking patterns shape how we think about ourselves, others and the world (particularly during times of heightened stress and anxiety). Once we’ve developed an awareness of our negative thinking patterns, we can start to reframe a situation and disengage from the unhealthy (and often repetitive) thinking loops before they cause us too much distress. Once we realise we’re interpreting a situation in a negative way (or only focusing on the bad aspects), we can look for ways to analyse the events or situation in a more balanced way. This doesn’t mean ignoring all the potential dangers or challenging aspects of the situation. Rather, it means broadening our perspective so that we’re giving fair and equal consideration to all aspects of the situation, including the good and positive aspects.
My other favourite beat is mindfulness! I could bongo all day to that rhythm :-)! When we find ourselves experiencing negative feelings in response to our rumination, it's helpful to give our senses and our brain something else to feast on. When we start cycling through unpleasant thoughts or outcomes, we can mindfully redirect our attention to other activities that are stimulating, calming and/or joyful. A few ideas to get you started:-
Go for a mindful walk and take in the sights, sounds and sensations of the outdoors;
Listen to your favourite uplifting music (e.g., Getting Good by Lauren Alaina https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkNc0-7ierw);
Light an aromatic candle whilst you read a good book;
Be around positive people;
Partake in your favourite healthy snack or drink; or
Cuddle your favourite furry friend (two or four legged!).
Anytime we start something new, it takes effort, repetition and time for the positive changes to become embedded in our lives. When it comes to addressing our brain’s negativity bias, it takes more effort for the brain to register and remember positive experiences. So, we need to take the time to pay attention to the good things that are happening around us. In a nutshell, we need to take time to smell the roses… even though every rose has its thorn (shout out to Poison). I mean, would we discount the joyful genius of 80s music just because it also came with ra-ra skirts, perms, mullets and a whole lotta hairspray (and possibly a large hole in the ozone layer)? Whilst I may have digressed a little, the point is (for anyone still reading) that when something good happens, take a moment to focus on it and the wonderful feelings that accompany it. Do it several times over so it gets written into your memory. Consciously elevating our happier thoughts to the forefront of awareness is one of the best ways to combat negative bias.
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