Do you ever find yourself ruminating on what a bad day you’ve had, or how things have conspired against you and you are now in a really bad position? Do you find yourself wishing that things were different, and thinking that you will “never succeed because of…”.
If so, you are not alone. Indeed, you would be a very unusual person if you could honestly say that your mind was not biased towards the negative. For most of our history as a species, we have lived in an environment where cost-benefit decisions would favor those who were more negatively inclined. Let’s face it if our caveman ancestors thought “oh, that mountain lion looks cute, I’m going to go pet it”, they would die. It made sense, from an evolutionary point of view, to be cautious and to avoid risk. Research shows that our minds process negative information differently than positive information.1
Why is it So Hard to Think Positive
While negativity bias made sense in the past, it’s not something that makes sense in today’s environment. Most of us will only very rarely face true threats to our safety. In general, positive thinking is better for our mental health,2 as long as the positive thoughts are healthy, and moderated.3
Studies show that people are drawn to negative stimuli. Our capacity to consider negative input is evolutionary. Being sensitive to things like the presence of danger is what helped to keep us safe when danger was around every corner. However, when it comes to modern life and relationships, it is important that there is some positive to balance out the negative. Even couples that are volatile, and that argue regularly, will offset their arguments with displays of love and passion. Interestingly, men tend to view their relationships more positively than women do, especially in older couples that have been married for a long time. Women are more likely to acknowledge marital problems, where men are more likely to avoid them and evade conflict.4
It’s the Little Positive Things that Matter
The optimal balance for a marriage is five small acts of positive interactions to each negative interaction. If a couple is experiencing difficulties and is on the way to a divorce, then they will likely have fewer positive interactions than that. One common pitfall that couples experience is that they focus on grand gestures. They will arrange romantic nights out for valentine’s or their anniversary, thinking that this one big grand gesture is enough to offset the negative. While that big positive experience can be a nice thing to have happen, it won’t have the necessary impact required to make them happy. It takes frequent, smaller positive experiences to make a person think positively about another person.
Applying Positivity in Your Day to Day Life
Just as frequent, small positive experiences make people think more positively about the person they have them with, these thoughts can help to alter the way that your mind works too.
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In one recent study, researchers worked with groups of people and gave them ‘life coaching’, asking one group to focus on problem-solving techniques, and another to focus on imagining a positive future. The group that focused on thinking about a positive long-term future showed demonstrable positive changes in their brain activity. Essentially, spending time thinking positively helped to rewire the brain.
Using Visualisation to Think Positively
The difference in blood flow is something that you can employ for yourself to improve your wellbeing. This theory, the ‘Positive Emotional Attractor’ is based on the idea of reducing our perception of threat. When we do this consistently, our parasympathetic nervous system (the one that is used during rest) becomes dominant, and our brain decides that it is safer to think more deeply, to be more flexible, and to simply slow down. We are not employing our ‘fight or flight’ systems, and this means that we enjoy more flexibility and more mental clarity. Visualizing success can help you to achieve it, although there are limits to this. Visualization should involve ‘doing the task’, rather than simply thinking about how good it will feel to get it done.5
This doesn’t mean that it is safe to ignore problems. If there is something pressing, then it is important to address it. The challenge is finding the balance between addressing problems and simply ruminating over them. If you want to address your negativity bias, then you need to find a way to focus on the positive. Imagine, for example, that you are getting poorer grades than you need at college, but it is the start of the academic year. You know what you need to do to address this – attend the study help classes. Spend some extra time working at home, or get tutoring from a senior student. If you do those things, you can improve your grades. The positive thing is that it’s the start of the academic year and you have time to pull your grades back up. Your brain’s negativity bias is going to want you to keep telling yourself that your grades are terrible, and you will never get that graduate job offer. You know better though, and you need to focus on the positives to change how you think.
Rumination is something that many people tend towards, but it can actually increase your risk of depression or anxiety.6 Those who are able to break that pattern and find other ways of coping with stressful things in their day to day lives are more likely to have a positive outlook.
The Power of Writing Things Down
One recent study found that if you take the time to write down your happy thoughts and positive moments, then that can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. As simple as it sounds, focusing on the positive will help to quiet the negative thoughts in your brain. Spending just 20 minutes per day on the job of writing down positive experiences can help to reduce stress.7
If life is getting you down, or you have a lot of challenges ahead, try to shift your focus to the positive and be proactive about fixing the things that are within your control. With time, life will start looking up again.
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