You know those days when you come home and you just feel completely defeated? Those days where it feels as though everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong? Perhaps you’ve even found yourself saying at the end of those days “why bother even trying…”
For me personally, I have absolutely had my fair share of those days. And, I hear from tons of people who often feel more negative than positive at the end of the day. We can only take so many days of feeling stressed out before we begin to feel hopeless, angry or anxious which on many occasions leads to us feeling physically sick.
Well, check out this awesome news. Not only is it completely normal that we experience more negativity than positivity in a given day, research shows that it is expected.
“How the heck is that awesome?” I can hear you asking – because if we understand our brains natural default system – we can adopt strategies and tools that will counteract its natural way of functioning.
What we know is that our brain has a “negativity bias.” Which in simple terms means, bad is stronger than good.
Our brain reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things. Our brain also associates way more meaning with the negative events that happen in our lives than it does with the positive events.
To prove this to you, try this quick experiment:
Stop for a moment and allow yourself 10 seconds to recall a compliment that someone gave to you in high school. Go ahead and think of something..
… do have a compliment? Great. Now try this..
Please allow yourself ten seconds to recall a moment from high school when someone said something negative towards you – something that really hurt…
Got something? Super.
Now, which was easier to recall?
The negative statement, right? And probably by a lot. Because of the negativity bias we almost always remember the negative statements that have been said to us more quickly and clearly than positive statements that have been said. Bad is Stronger than good.
Here is another scenario:
You have a meeting with your immediate supervisor for your mid-year evaluation. She tells you several amazing things that she is impressed with concerning how you contribute to your company, but then she mentions the “area for improvement” “that area we could work on”. Are you with me?! We hate hearing about that “area for improvement”! And, we leave these meetings beating ourselves up over how we are not rising to the occasion in that one area. Never mind the many awesome things that were said about us. We leave these meetings feeling disappointed about the one area we need to improve upon. Bad is stronger than good.
Negative emotions are so, SO powerful. They will control us if we do not control them.
Although this is the case, there is an important paradox to keep in mind here and that is: when our brains default to the negative they are are actually just trying to protect us.
Let me explain..
For our ancestors who lived thousands and thousands of years ago, a bias toward negativity was more than helpful; it was literally life saving. For example, cavemen looking on the bright side might have interpreted a rustling in the bushes as a tasty antelope rather than a threatening lion, and consequently found himself a lion’s lunch!
Always imagining the worst is definitely drab, but it is also an outstanding survival plan. Pessimism helped our ancestors make it to the present day.
Luckily for us in 2015, at least I can speak for where I live in NYC, there are fewer lions than ever hiding in the bushes in Central Park :)
Yet, our brains continue to spot lions – disguised as opinionated politicians, impending deadlines, and competitors.
In other words, we have old brains operating in a new world.
We are still wired the same way our ancestors were – but, considering we no longer need to flee from hungry lions it is no longer necessary to utilize the negativity bias to the degree we needed to thousands of years ago.
Most of society doesn’t know this yet (I didn’t before I began studying positive psychology) but we actually can make a deliberate choice here. We can choose to allow our negativity bias default system to rule our lives, making us fearful and stressed around every corner, or not.
After we establish for ourselves that we would like to rise above our negativity bias – a great next step is to examine and understand the extraordinary gifts that are our positive emotions.
Or, as I like to sometimes call our “positive juju” :)
Barbara Fredrickson, a leading scientist who studies positive emotion and author of Positivity (an amazing read which I highly recommend) teaches us that “Positive emotions broaden our scope of attention, cognition and action, and build physical, intellectual and social resources.”
In other words, positive emotions open us. They open our hearts and our minds and make us more receptive and creative. They help us to discover and build upon new skills, relationships, and new ways of being in the world.
Fredrickson also teaches us that like negative emotions, positive emotions are also extremely powerful – they just don’t come around as often which is why we have to actively construct positive experiences for ourselves.
Evidence has shown that for every one negative emotion we experience, we need to experience around five positive emotions to counteract the shittiness we feel from the single negative emotion.
Ok, she didn’t use the “term” “shittiness”. But I’m unsure why she didn’t! It is way more fulfilling to explain it that way and it really cuts to the heart of what we’re trying to say here :) – at least that’s my feeling. :)
So what does all of this mean for you? How can you significantly reduce those defeated feeling days and increase your daily happiness levels?
Here are four sure-fire tips that will put you on the path to decreasing negative emotions and increasing the amount of lasting joy in your life.
# 1 Be aware that the negativity bias is actively working within your brain. Understand that if your brain is left to its own devices it WILL default to the negative. It is wired to do so. But remember, your brain is only trying to protect you! So, be gentle with it :)
When you notice yourself lost in something negative, remind yourself that your negativity bias is just trying to do the job it was designed to do. Try saying to your negativity bias “Thanks anyway, but I got this.”
# 2 Brainstorm activities that evoke positive emotions for you and actively engage in them. Research shows that the more positive experiences you can create for yourself, the better. And these can be small activities such as: stopping to smell the roses (really :) or, calling up a great friend to chat, or listening to a favorite piece of music, or mindfully eating a delicious healthy snack, or contemplating what you are grateful for, and on and on..
# 3 Use perspective. When problems arise throughout the day, instead of getting sucked into them, instead of investing so much energy into them, remind yourself that in the context of you and your problem, in relationship with say, world hunger – your problem is likely not as intense or pertinent as you are making it to be. This is not at all to discount hardships you may be experiencing, but to keep them right sized.
# 4 Meditate. Even if you can only carve ten minutes out of your day to sit and do it – please do yourself this favor and begin today. All of the latest research in psychology and neuroscience point to fact that meditation enables powerful and transformational results for the brain. If you don’t know how to meditate – I plan on blogging about it in the future – but for now you could read about it here, or you could always go and take a class (it’s fun and a great way to meet like minded people).
Well, that’s a wrap everybody!
In this blog post I have taught you about our brains negativity bias and its evolutionary role, the purpose of positive emotions and the importance of harnessing them, and I left you with four scientifically proven strategies that will help you cultivate sustainable positive juju. :)
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my most favorite positive psychology based concepts with you. I hope what I’ve offered here brings value to your life in some way.
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With love and appreciation,