It’s estimated that each of us experiences around six thousand thoughts per day.
If you’re like most people, an overwhelming majority of these thoughts will be repetitive, negative, or both. Common examples are thoughts of dread (“Tonight’s going to be awful”), judgment (“This guy’s so annoying”), and weakness (“I’m so useless at this”).
Many of these “sticky,” unpleasant thoughts can pounce from nowhere, spoiling your good mood. Worse yet, they may stubbornly keep coming back or cause you to see threat in situations that would otherwise be opportunities for pleasure or growth.
We humans, it seems, have a pesky proclivity for negativity.
What Is the Negativity Bias?
Like a default setting in the brain, humans place greater importance on negative stimuli than positive stimuli in a pattern known as the negativity bias. The following quote from negativity bias researcher Dr. Rick Hanson explains the purpose of this pattern nicely:
“In the tough environments where our ancestors lived - if they missed a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick—a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species—WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.”
The human brain is heavily equipped for survival and reproduction. Whether it be someone's sour opinion, a mistake we’ve made, or a possibility of failing in the future, our brains are hardwired to protect us by reliably bringing our attention to this negative experience.
It’s likely this bias plays out in your own life, perhaps without you noticing. Ask yourself:
- Does expecting the worst feel more natural than wishing for the best?
- Do you find it easier to avoid taking risks in order not to fail?
- Is it easier to recall memories of your mistakes over your successes?
Arguably the most common example of the negativity bias is the tendency many of us have to fixate on negative feedback, such as that from our partners, boss, or teachers, even when we receive positive feedback too.
This pattern illustrates that our bias extends not only to events in the world but to other people’s perceptions of us and our actions. Consequently, emotions like embarrassment and self-consciousness seem to have guarded us against being excluded by the tribes upon which we depended to survive.
Likewise, negative feelings that flow from the stress response, like anxiety in response to a predator, spurred our ancestors to fight or flee. Today, we sweat over our deadlines and responsibilities using this same circuitry, exhausting our nervous systems and hurting our wellbeing.
Zooming out further, there can be serious consequences for the trajectories of our lives when we overfocus on negativity. In situations that promise to teach us or stretch our capacities, such as trying your first workout class or pursuing a new career, our thoughts signal risk rather than opportunity (e.g., “What if I look foolish?” or “I’ll be giving up everything I’ve worked for.”)
And so we pull away or convince ourselves there’s nothing worth pursuing. Make this choice too many times, and it can have regrettable consequences for your growth, causing you to miss out on life.
How to Neutralise the Negativity Bias
Although the negativity bias is baked into our brains, there's no reason to feel powerless against its consequences.
Any of us can enjoy greater psychological balance and sidestep the dangers of the negativity bias. This involves cultivating three skills—awareness, wise attention, and positivity.
You can’t change what you’re not aware of. This premise is central to the mindfulness movement and a powerful remedy for our overfocus on negativity.
The key to developing this awareness is to take a step back and view your mental environment as an observer. To do this, it can be helpful to imagine each of your thoughts as floating on a cloud. From here, you can zoom out to view the cloud as just one among a series in the broader ‘sky’ of your mind.
This imagery can help you recognise that, when a thought arises, it’s just one of many passing thoughts, which you are not identical to. Rather, you are the observer of the thoughts. This positioning creates distance between a thought and you so you can decide how to respond to it.
Cultivating Wise Attention
Once you’ve become aware of a negative thought, you have two choices:
- You can do some fact-checking by asking, “Is this really true?” or “Can I really know this?”
- Alternatively, you can simply ask, “Is this thought helpful right now?” If not, you can let the thought float by without fighting it or engaging with it.
When you choose Option 2, you’re practicing wise attention.
There’s a difference between wisely choosing to engage with negative thoughts and doing so automatically. Wise attention involves assessing whether a particular thought is helpful to you right now.
For example, imagine you have an important project deadline that you’re worried about. While it may be helpful to pay attention to thoughts about this project when you’re working on it, paying attention to looping, negative thoughts about your deadline when you’re trying to relax risks hurting your wellbeing.
This is because you won’t be able to rest your mind during your off-time properly, and so you’ll be operating at less than 100% when you return to the task. This is the difference between wise and automatic uses of your attention.
So if our negative emotions are bound up with thoughts and perceptions of threat, what happens when we think about positive things?
According to Stanford Professor Barbara Fredrickson, positive experiences and flow-on positive emotions broaden our perspective in ways that benefit health and functioning. For instance, experiencing more positive emotions has been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier weight, and a longer life.
Positivity also allows us to draw on a wider range of thoughts and actions in response to events, helping us be more flexible, creative, and adaptable. When we feel positive, we’re also more likely to spot opportunity instead of threat in different situations, giving us a psychological boost to power through challenges with our heads held high.
This means that, no matter what’s going on in your life, it’s important to schedule some time for positivity into your day, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
You’ll know best what puts a smile on your face, but here are some simple ideas:
- Build a regular morning routine incorporating some quiet reflection time, exercise and your favourite morning beverage.
- Chat regularly with friends or family who make you feel happy, accepted and appreciated.
- Regularly read a few pages of a book you find interesting before bed instead of mindlessly watching TV.
While negative thoughts and emotions serve as important warning signals, positivity is equally essential to the wellbeing equation. Developing our awareness of thoughts is one of the most powerful starting points for improving this balance.
Here’s a simple way to put this into practice:
- The next time you feel stuck in negativity, pause and take a deep breath.
- Give context to the words or images that make up your negative thoughts. For example: “I am having the thought that…” or “Right now, my thoughts are telling me…” Then, picture this thought on a fluffy, white cloud.
- Zoom out to observe this cloud as one of a series in the sky of your mind. Take note of how harmless it is and ask yourself: “Is it helpful for me to think about this right now?” If not, simply observe the thought and watch it pass by.
A final step (if you like) is to then choose to think or do something positive instead. This will not only help retrain your brain to think more positive thoughts but may help broaden your perspective enough to solve tricky problems and spot new opportunities—a two-in-one benefit for your wellbeing!
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