Have you ever noticed that when someone compliments you, say on your nice outfit or your hairstyle, you get a boost of confidence and well-being for a while? That through the rest of that conversation and for an hour or two later, you feel better about yourself and perhaps about the world? And, as an alternative scenario, if someone were to tell you that your outfit today was really sub-par or that you really should spend some more time on your hair in the future, how that would rock your world? And probably for days, if not weeks?
Our Negativity Bias Is Highly Adaptive
As a species, we have survived for millions of years by adapting to very dangerous and threatening conditions. We are highly attuned and sensitive to danger and pain. We don’t die from a false positive so we tend to go a bit overboard to protect ourselves. Our taste buds respond more strongly to bitter tastes than to sweet ones to keep us safe. And in the past, we were much more likely to focus on the rustling in the nearby bushes that could be a lion than we were to appreciate the beautiful sunset on the horizon. The folks who focused on the latter typically didn’t survive to pass on their genes. Natural selection not only affected our physical attributes but our psychological disposition as well. Our negativity bias is highly adaptive and has served us well. We wouldn’t be here today without it.
Our Brains Are Velcro For The Bad And Teflon For The Good
The good news is our human circumstances have changed dramatically for the better. Our brains, however, have not. We tend to hold onto our negative thoughts and feelings much longer than our positive ones. As Tal Ben-Shahar, a leader in Positive Psychology, says, “Our brains are Velcro for the bad, and Teflon for the good.” We absorb negative thoughts and feelings more easily and deeply in an attempt to protect ourselves.
Luckily, there are ways that you can combat this negativity bias and turn down your “threat detector” so it’s more in line with our current living conditions.
How Do I Decrease My Negative Thoughts?
Studies show that 85% of the things we get stressed or worried about turn out either neutral or positive so we expend a lot of energy for nothing. And, for the most part, it's counterproductive. We have so many negative thoughts and fears about the future, the unknown, past experiences that we want to avoid happening again, about ourselves - our inadequacies and wrongdoings - as well as those of others. The first step is to become aware of your negative, or stressful thoughts without "attaching" to them. "Oh, I'm having a stressful thought about something I can't control about the future." Then, instead of automatically believing your negative or stressful thoughts, question them:
- “Is this really true? What evidence do I have to the contrary? In what situations is this not true?”
- “Is this line of thinking serving me well?”
- “Is everything actually okay right now?” “Am I or anyone I love in physical danger?”
When we begin to understand and accept that these negative thoughts are part of our brain’s ancient and outdated attempt to protect us, we can learn to let go of them and move toward embracing and increasing our positivity.
Why Is Positivity So Important?
Positive emotions -joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love, to name a few- flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin making us feel better and helping us build our intellectual, physical, and social resources. They also dial up the learning centers of our brains, helping us think more quickly and creatively, organize new info, retain it longer, and retrieve it faster. They increase our well-being and make us more successful at whatever we set out to do.
What Can I Do To Increase My Positivity?
1) Notice The Good In Your Life
One of the most effective ways to become more positive is to notice the good things that happen to you throughout your days, your weeks and your years. Establishing a gratitude practice at the end of the day by writing down three things you are grateful for that happened on that day can jump start this habit. Writing about the delicious glass of cold, crisp wine you had with dinner, the hug you got from your son when you walked in from work, or the smile the cashier gave you at the grocery store are all great examples. By doing this, our brain is forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives which trains it to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on the positive going forward.
2) Savor Your Positive Emotions And Experiences
Savoring is another way to increase your positivity. When your spouse hugs you, try to be present and hold the hug for six seconds. Or close your eyes when you are drinking your hot cup of coffee and really taste it to your fullest capacity. Stretch and amplify these wonderful moments as much as you can.
3) Infuse Positivity Boosters
The third way to increase your positivity is to increase the activities that boost your mood. Ask yourself, “What do I love to do? What brings me joy? Aliveness? Passion? How do I feel while I am doing it? After I do it?”
Some possibilities may include exercise, being in nature, reading, listening to music, dancing, going on a walk with a friend, meditating, watching a funny movie with your loved ones, yoga, journaling, and engaging in acts of kindness. Write a list of things that you would define as positivity boosters. Then, pick no more than two or three from your list and commit to them. Write them down in your daily planner, on your fridge, or somewhere else highly visible. Commit and allocate time to doing them. “On which day will I do them?” “At what time?” “With whom?”
By reducing your attachment to your negative thoughts and feelings while simultaneously increasing the amount of positivity in your life, you will be well on your way to flourishing.
Amy Larson is a life coach and career coach who meets with local clients in her comfortable office at 1877 Broadway in Boulder, CO and with clients from around the country via phone and Skype. Amy has worked in Investment Banking, Management Consulting and Consumer Products Marketing holds an undergraduate business degree from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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