I read somewhere that we can have up to 60,000 thoughts a day and that about 98% of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday. The more alarming statistic, however, was that about 80% of those thoughts are negative. I knew that we tend to focus on the negative but had no idea that it was to that extent.
In any case, my curiosity was piqued so I decided to conduct a little experiment. I monitored my thoughts over the course of a few days with some regular check-ins during the day. The goal was to record what I was thinking, whether it was negative or not and more importantly for me, what my general mood was at the time.
The results surprised me. For one thing my mind wandered … a lot, much more than I expected. The other thing I observed was when it got diverted it was usually to a perceived issue. Even sitting still for a few minutes trying to meditate I observed that there were recurring thoughts about what was bothering me, what or who annoyed me, what problems needed solving, what issues needed fixing. It seemed like the negative popped up much more frequently and easily.
In contrast, naturally uplifting thoughts were at a minimum and I had to consciously seek them out. Of course my mood matched the tone of my thoughts. It’s difficult to be upbeat if your thoughts are anything but.
As brief as my experiment was, it was pretty sobering. It seemed to confirm, at least anecdotally, what I had read. It also brought home how the quality of my thoughts affected how I felt and interacted with others as a result. Whether I was conscious of it or not, with each negative thought I was draining my body and mind. Left unchecked it’s no wonder on some days I ended the day exhausted and unmotivated. Negativity was taking its toll.
Have you noticed this tendency in your life and blamed it on external events? What if it is actually wired into you? If as science says we are programmed to focus on the negative, how do you combat it? How do you thrive when your mind seems intent on making sure that you always magnify the bad? Understanding why may be the first step.
The Negativity Bias
First documented by psychologists Baumister, Bratslavsky, Vohs and Finkenauer, the Negativity Bias is the name given to describe human beings’ inclination towards the negative. You are more likely to be influenced by and remember negative experiences than positive or neutral ones. In a sea of flowery compliments you are more likely to remember the one insult you received and bad news attracts more attention than good news. However hard you may try to resist, it pulls you in and dominates your mind.
The bias affects your behaviour but it’s actually built into the brain. The amygdala, the region of the brain that regulates emotion and motivation uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect bad news. Once it has identified a bad event it stores it instantly into long-term memory. In contrast, positive events need to be held in awareness for several seconds before they too are committed to long term memory.
The ability to recognise danger quickly was critical to the survival of the human species, after all those who saw danger and avoided it lived to see another day. In modern day, though, it results in unintended consequences. You’re not (usually) in danger of being eaten alive but your mind still acts like you are so you react more strongly to the negative and with much more urgency. If two equivalent events happen to you on the same day, one bad and one good, you will react to and remember more vividly the bad one. When your mind wanders, as I found in my experiment, it will more often stray to something that made you upset instead of something that filled you with happiness.
It can take its toll but all is not lost
Constant negativity is draining, psychologically, emotionally and physically. It’s been found to produce chemicals in the body that weaken the immune system. Yes, it can make you sick!
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. If that were the case you’d be walking around under a cloud of sadness, anger and bad feeling all the time. Positive thoughts exist, positive events happen and you keep moving forward. There are strategies you can use to compensate for the bias and you may already use some of them without being aware of it. Do you want to cultivate a more balanced perspective of events in your life? Here are a few tips on how.
1. Cultivate awareness
If you can recognize a negative thought, you can choose to change it but it starts with awareness. Understand that your brain is wired to focus on any bad news even when it is only a tiny piece of the picture. Recognise that your mind will tend to dwell on that negative bit of information and minimise even larger amounts of positive information. Knowing that you have a negativity bias will help you to identify when you’re exaggerating the negative aspects of a situation.
2. Savour the positive even in small doses
It takes several seconds before the good stuff is stored in long term memory so savour positive experiences no matter how small. Replay them in your mind a few times and for at least 20 to 30 seconds so that the memory of the positive gets archived in your long-term memory. This will help to reinforce positive patterns in your brain. Small and frequent positive action has even been shown to have a greater sustained impact than one big bang positive event.
3. Counterbalance the negative
It takes at least five positive events to counterbalance one negative event. Research has shown, for instance, that as long as there were five times as many positive to negative interactions between husband and wife, the marriage was likely to succeed over time. The same ratio has been confirmed in other areas of life so praise more than you criticise and know that you need the same.
4. Limit your exposure
Ambient negativity can be insidious so avoid it. That includes people, environments, pretty much any area that emphasizes doom and gloom. It doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand but if you are constantly surrounded by the negative you will feel more negative. Try to limit ruminating on past negative events (which you can’t change) and focus instead on the here and now and the promise and possibility of the future.
5. Get to the bottom of it
Focusing on the positive and replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones are useful techniques but if there is a deeper underlying issue they may not be a useful long term solution. They don’t get to the bottom of why the thoughts arose in the first place. Sometimes brushing your problems under the carpet instead of dealing with them may just exacerbate the problem in the long run. Sometimes facing and working through your problems is the best approach to eliminating your negative thoughts about them.
6. Practise Gratitude
When what is happening around you and in your mind is not what you want, gratitude is a decision to look beyond what you are currently experiencing. It is a decision to look for the good, the positive, regardless of circumstance.
Practicing gratitude releases anger, resentment and struggle and gets you focused on how blessed you are. So take a few minutes each day to think about the good things that have happened that day, it will often help to put the negative back into perspective. By focusing on the good you’ll gradually be rewiring your brain for happiness.
So where do you go from here?
How do you feel and interact with others every day? Is it generally positive or do you find that your mind strays more often to what could go wrong or isn’t working? If you were to take a poll of your thoughts on a normal day what proportion do you think would be negative?
Maybe you’re able to manage life’s ups and downs, living on the whole a happy, healthy life. Or maybe sometimes you suffer the accumulation of this negativity and you realise the impact when you are overcome by it. Don’t wait for that to happen.
Be more proactive and take stock of what’s going on in your mind, your life and your relationships.
It may help to remember this:
‘Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.’ — Marcus Aurelius
An event is just an event and it’s only your interpretation or experience of it is that makes it bad or good, negative or positive. Once you understand that you realise that you actually have the power to change your response by making a different choice. Yes, the negativity bias is here to stay but thankfully it doesn’t have to control you.
‘Bad is stronger than good’ (2001) by R F Baumeister, E Bratslavsky, C Finkenauer, K D Vohs