It’s a great life skill to able to look on the bright side as we negotiate the ups and downs of everyday living. The ability to look at a glass and see it as half-full instead of half-empty is surprisingly rare but it’s impact on wellbeing is considerable. It increases our resilience and makes us more attractive to be around. However, we all know people for whom the glass is always half empty. It’s the sort of person for whom there is always a ‘but’, whatever good circumstances are coming their way. Lovely weather is forecast for an outing, but they always take an umbrella. They manage to negotiate a pay rise, but it is not as much as they hoped for. They cook a beautiful meal for a dinner party, but now they are exhausted. Their negativity bias is alive and flourishing!
If we are honest, we can see that although we are not like this all the time, we all have moments where we are just focused on how unsatisfactory things are.
Why is this?
We are constantly on the lookout for threats
Our brain has evolved to keep us safe, alive and reproducing our species. We are programmed to pay more attention to negative stuff and to remember it longer. When you think of our lives as hunter-gatherers this makes sense. Finding a new food source was a good thing but discovering a berry that was poisonous and killed you was much more important—so we remembered it and avoided it the next time we came across it. This is sometimes referred to as the brain’s negativity bias. The brain is always tracking for threats to our survival and once we locate one, then we store it away to remember for the future.
What this means for us now
Of course, in our modern lives there can still be real threats to our physical survival but mostly the negative stuff the brain is identifying and storing away is just part of the wear and tear of everyday life. If we fall out with a family member or get a harsh comment from our boss, it weighs on our minds and we tend to replay it over and over again. An unpleasant encounter in the supermarket over-rides all the courtesy and friendliness we usually encounter. If our favourite restaurant has an off day, all the delicious meals we have eaten there previously seem to be less believable.
The trouble with all this is that can lead to us giving into anger, frustration or jealousy. By focusing on negativity, we highlight our problems and bring them into the forefront of our experience. Giving such weight to the difficult things makes it easier for us to give into our more troublesome emotions, such as anger, fear and jealousy. It can make us tougher on other people because we are operating from this position of threat.
Two aspects of our negativity bias we can stop straight away
Cut the anxiety loops in our minds
We can try to get out of the habit of going over and over stuff that has bothered us and replaying different ways we should have dealt with it. Ruminatingin this way only works the negative memory in deeper and ensures that it stays with us longer. One of the most effective ways of cutting through rumination is with mindfulness meditation. By helping us to be awake in the present moment, we can bring our mind back from going over stuff that has already happened, or other stuff we are worried will happen in the future.
Stop beating ourselves up
We can try to stop telling ourselves off for the way things turned out. How many times do we say to ourselves, ‘I should have….’, ‘If only I had….’.’Why didn’t I?….’ Most of us have a voice in our headthat give a running commentary on how we are managing and sadly, its commentary is often negative. The thing is that we did not do any of those things and it is too late to change it. We can take note for the next time but beating up on ourselves will only increase the negative impact. The most effective way to transform our inner critic into something useful is by showing ourselves the same kindness that we would show a friend in a similar situation.
Here are more good habits that can overcome our negativity bias
Notice the good things that happen to us every day
These can be small things—a sunny morning, a smile from a stranger, a helping hand from a friend. Don’t just notice the first thing—keep your eyes open for all the small but precious moments throughout the day.
Allow yourself to feel good
There is no need to feel guilty or to worry that it is selfish. A moment of happiness, or satisfaction will help you to be more open and accessible to other people. You can share the benefit.
Savour the experience
Once we have noticed something good happening, then we can take a moment to savour the experience and let it sink into our consciousness. We are often too quick to shrug off the good stuff. By allowing ourselves to enjoy moments like the smelling the freshly baked bread in the local bakery, or pausing to watch children playing in the playground we are acknowledging the good experiences and letting them in. This will help to feel more satisfied and less in need of external stimuli.
We can even take a moment to express appreciation for some of the many, small, wonderful things that happen to us every day.
Here is an exercise that you could try
The purpose of the exercise is to help us to connect with experiences that can help us to undermine our tendency to focus on the bad stuff. By really seeing the good stuff and appreciating the effect it has on our moods and state of mind, we can learn to apply it when unpleasant things happen to us. This exercise shows a way of doing this after the event but as we get used to working this way, we can apply it as things happen.
Let me know how you got on with the exercise. I would love to hear how it worked for you.
If you have enjoyed this post and found it useful, you might want to take a look at this free 5-day e-course, HOW TO MAKE SELF-COMPASSION YOUR TOP PRIORITY