According to Vaish, Grossman, and Woodward (2008) our brains are hard-wired for negativity. “Adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”
What this boils down to is, when things go awry, we are much more likely to see the negative rather than the positive. This stems from an adaptive human trait that likely saved us more often then not when we were hunter-gatherers. But today this habit is a whole lot less useful. It can lead to stress and catastrophising. That’s not great, so what can we do about it? It sounds over-simplified to just say “Think positively”, only that’s really the solution. If you want to start seeing the positive more often you have to actually train your brain.
Just like an Olympic athlete, if you want to reap the benefits of this training, you must do it often and consistently.
The way it works is two-fold. The first approach is to flip the narrative. Any time you catch yourself thinking a negative thought toward yourself or others, combat it with a positive thought, or THREE positive thoughts if you want to really kill the negative. Negative thoughts are sticky when we first start this process, and positive thoughts tend to slip away more easily. We ruminate on the negative and tend to disbelieve the positive. That’s because we’ve had our whole lives to think the negative. But the more you practice this flipping of the narrative, the more you build neural pathways to the new thoughts. It will get easier and the positive will becomes more sticky while the negative slides away more often.
The other piece to add to this practice is to simply focus on the positive in the first place. Start your day with gratitude and affirmations, and then look for them wherever you can throughout the rest of the day. Turning sorry’s into thank-you’s and no’s into yes’s. “Sorry I’m late.” becomes “Thank-you for waiting for me.” and “no I can’t go out tonight, I’ve got a big project due” becomes “yes I can grab dinner with you before you go out, because everyone’s gotta eat!” You see the difference? If you’re always focused on what you can’t do, you might not see the options of what you CAN do.
A game I’ve played with myself since I was in my early teens fits nicely into this training model. I call it The Stories We Tell. When I come across things that might lead me to a negative thought, such as a bad or slow driver in front of me in traffic, I try to think of a reason for them to be that way where I would give them a pass — for example, if they are a new driver just learning, then I wouldn’t get frustrated with them. This works in many places. That time I was at the hospital and had called a cab, and the gentleman who walked out just as the cab arrived, without glancing, stepped into what was most-likely my cab and off they went. I told myself, he had been at the hospital when I arrived, and we’d both been here all night. He was just as frustrated and tired as I was, and he probably had worse things to deal with since he was there much longer. Even though I originally thought what he had done was rude, given the surrounding circumstances, perhaps he was just doing the best he could to get through a tough situation.
The goal is not to get walked all over by people taking things that were meant to be yours!! The goal is to have compassion for your fellow human and see if you can write a creative story to explain what you see as different from your knee-jerk negative reaction. My son and I sometimes get silly with these stories when I voice them out loud, going back and forth coming up with “Or maybe..” ideas, each one more absurd than the last, until we can’t stop laughing.
Because in the end, whether we let the original wiring of our brain take over, and see the negative everywhere we go, or we train ourselves to see the positive more often — it really is the stories we choose to tell ourselves that will make the biggest impact on our mood, outlook, and mindset.
What stories will you tell today?