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Why We Often Dwell on the Negative and How to Change That

A friend of mine, Les Brown (aka Mr. Motivator), in one of his speeches points out that most of us are more likely to remember negative criticism than praise. He shares that even after many years have passed, that we will remember a negative comment someone made about us, and not the overwhelming number of positive comments we have received. In his humorous way, Les talks about how we know where we were when it was said, what the person looked like, what they were wearing, what the weather was that day, what way the wind was blowing, and so forth.

This came to me when, out of the blue, I remembered an insult cast toward me by a classmate when I was in elementary school. I thought about how wild it is to remember something like that from so many years ago. I asked myself, “Why is that?”

Imagine you’re driving to work or a meeting. As you get off the freeway, someone suddenly cuts in front of you. An anxious anger arises. You tensely grip the steering wheel. Rather than let it go, it sets a path to feel bad for the rest of the day. Because we give it attention, we end up being distracted during work or the meeting. Why do minor aspersions from others have such a powerful effect on our lives?

Or take today’s political atmosphere, why is there so much more emphasis on what’s negative about an opponent, or person from another political party, rather than focusing on positive aspirational ideas for the future that will benefit the body politic. Well, the answer goes back to the cave dwelling days of our ancestors. To go outside to hunt, danger and violence were constantly present. Our brains were configured in such a way that we had the tendency to react more to negative experiences than the positive ones.

That way of being served an important role; it kept us safe from real danger. But today, we don’t face the physical dangers of our cave dwelling ancestors. Such a mindset can be more of a hindrance than a help. That persistent mindset is called “negativity bias.”

This negativity bias was built up over millions of years. At one time, our existence was one of life and death. Naturally, there had to be extra attention to danger. Human beings reacted to them intensely and remembered them vividly. However, the continuation of this negativity bias can be detrimental to our life, work, and wellbeing.

It is possible to manage our negativity bias. We probably won’t erase it completely. It took millions if not billions of years to develop so it’s going to be around for a bit. But we can minimize it. Here are some exercises we can do to address negativity bias:

1. Be aware of the negativity bias. When we are aware, we can make another choice on what to focus on. Without awareness, there is no choice; we’re just reacting. This is where our mindfulness practice can be a big help. We can observe our thoughts and open up to think and act independently of circumstances.

2. Re-frame the situation by changing our language about it. Once we become aware, we can look at the situation and rather than say, “This is going to turn into a terrible experience for me.” We can say, “This is an opportunity for me to bring more of me out as well as to grow, develop, and unfold to my best self.”

3. Work on a challenging puzzle or problem. I find that when I work on a problem that challenges me and requires focused attention, I tend to forget about my minor distractions. In the same way, we can shake off negative emotions by re-directing our mental energy to something like a puzzle or memory game.

4. Keep a gratitude list. When Oprah Winfrey, despite her fame and fortune, found herself struggling to feel a sense of joy, she realized she had stopped writing down what she was happy for each day. When she picked up the practice again, her overall feelings moved from negative to positive.

5. Fully experience the good. When we take the time to appreciate the good experiences in our life, even the small ones, we reinforce positive mind patterns. The key is to take the time to let the thoughts settle in and not rush away from them.

Negativity bias can have a lot of power. But if we take the time to practice one or two of the above suggestions, negativity bias will have less of a hold on us. We will redirect our focus; we understand the complete statement of the phrase at the top of this article. It’s from Philippians 4:8 and says, “ …whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Peace and Blessings,


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