Maybe you forgot to turn your slow cooker on before heading out on your hike, you had to endure a traffic jam that made you 20 minutes late to work, or a colleague made a passive aggressive comment in a meeting. Suddenly every minuscule inconvenience, from misspelled names on lattes to missing the elevator door, seems like a plot to incite your inner fury.
When one small event throws a wedge into our day it can sometimes send us down a slippery, hours-long slope of exasperated huffs and cranky faces. But why is it so hard to shake the frustration or anger?
The tendency to stew in this negative broth isn’t just common, it’s thought to be part of the human condition. In their 2001 study, psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman theorized that we tend give greater weight to the negative than the positive — it's what's known as “negativity bias."
Negativity bias is nature’s way of assuring that we don’t get lulled into complacency and succumb to avoidable dangers.
“Negativity bias evolved because it helped our human ancestors avoid threats to life, limb and social reputation,” explains Dr. Barbara Fredrickson,
a psychology and neuroscience professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of "Positivity" and "Love 2.0." "Personally-threatening negative events are statistically rare, yet the risk in dwelling so frequently in the positive is that we might not notice threats that need to be avoided or problems that need to be solved. Negativity bias is nature’s way of assuring that we don’t get lulled into complacency and succumb to avoidable dangers.”
The thing is, as Dr. Fredrickson points out, those threatening scenarios are very rare in our modern world. There’s no jaguar hiding in the bushes on our daily commute and no imminent pandemic disease to fret over. However, in the same way that our fight or flight reflex is triggered by everyday stressors as a lingering survival mechanism, that negative proclivity persists.
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Negativity manifests in numerous ways, ranging from focusing on negative traits rather than positive ones, to remembering our failures and forgetting our achievements, to not being able to work our way back to a baseline mood after dealing with a negative event — no matter how minute it may be.
Though it’s a default setting, purposeful reconfiguring can help you remain more positive no matter what’s thrown your way. Here are a few ways to do so.
1. Isolate the Event
One of the reasons we’re so affected by a singular negative event is that we start imagining all the ways it might impact our future, no matter how illogical those “what ifs” are.
“When you find yourself in a negative spiral filtering in the negative aspects of your day and racing down the rabbit hole of ‘what ifs’ and whether these negative things could lead to more negative things, stop,” says Dr. Jennifer Guttman, a clinical psychologist based in New York and Connecticut who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy. “Ask yourself what evidence you have that this negative thing will lead to more negative events. Remind yourself that you can’t cope with something in advance of there being anything to cope with.”
In other words, reframe the event and see it for what it is — a small, isolated, inconsequential setback that has no bearing on the rest of your day.
2. Get Yourself a Mantra
It may sound cheesy (and the last thing you want to hear after you spill your coffee all over the kitchen floor), but a mantra may serve you well. “Find a phrase that speaks to you to remind yourself that negativity cascades do end,” Dr. Fredrickson says. “‘This too shall pass’ is one that can work in many different circumstances. ‘At least I’m not in this alone,’ is another that fits in almost every circumstance because similar setbacks affect others as well.”
3. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Okay, so maybe you should have checked the traffic and accounted for a 20-minute delay. Nevertheless, beating yourself up doesn’t help the issue.
“Don’t evaluate or judge yourself more harshly then you would someone else,” urges Dr. Guttman. “Living inside a critical mind will not allow you to live a satisfied life. And although you may deceive yourself into thinking it will make you a higher achiever, it’s actually sapping your brain of precious mental energy.”
Chances are, for everything that went wrong, there are a handful of things that went right. So instead of focusing on a minor misstep and letting it color the rest of your day, focus on those things you’ve done that deserve self-praise.
Remind yourself that even though it feels like the negative should weigh heavier than the positive, that’s our animal brains talking, and we’ve evolved from that.
4. Utilize Positive Distractions
If you find yourself slipping down a negative spiral, make a concerted effort to distract yourself from going any further. “Identify positive distractions that work for you. Maybe it’s taking in natural beauty, thinking of your pet, inventing a new recipe, or planning your next get-together with a friend,” says Dr. Fredrickson. “The goal is to come up with a positive distraction that you can call on in a moment’s notice to break the cycle of negativity.”
Another way to positively distract yourself is to notice, connect with and truly appreciate others around you.
“Momentary connections with others — even people you don’t know and may never meet again — can be a great source of emotional uplift. Scientists call these momentary connections ‘positivity resonance’ and they appear key to maintaining both emotional and physical health,” says Dr. Fredrickson.
5. Catalog Your Thoughts
It’s possible you may not even be aware that you’re running your everyday experiences through a negative filter. The only way to stop this cycle, then, is to force awareness. Dr. Guttman says one way to do this is to keep a log of thoughts. This could be a mental, paper or digital log that you reflect on daily.
“Check-in with yourself about whether there were actually positive events that should balance out the negative that you forgot to address,” advises Dr. Guttman. “Negative events should not have 50 percent more weight compared to positive ones when you review the list. Remind yourself that even though it feels like the negative should weigh heavier than the positive, that’s our animal brains talking, and we’ve evolved from that.”
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