Bad is stronger than good

Negativity bias is the human tendency to notice and be more influenced by bad things and bad experiences, instead of neutral or positive experiences. Examples of our negativity bias include remembering a bad day more easily than a good day, feeling like we are in the slow lane most often, or remembering insults instead of the nice things people say. Our brains react more strongly to negative input than positive input.

The origins of negativity bias – survival

We have a negativity bias because humans evolved to notice and respond more forcibly to the bad – this actually helped our ancestors stay alive. Negative emotions focus our energy on survival, which is fine if there is a lion in the classroom. While it is unlikely that a lion would be in the classroom, our brains are still wired to constantly be on the lookout for harm or danger. In most cases, this is unhelpful in our modern-day world. Left unchecked, the negativity bias can get in the way of our happiness and wellbeing.

Balancing the negativity bias

Knowing that we have a negativity bias can help us balance our negativity with positivity. While some negativity is necessary, or even helpful, our tendency to focus on the negative means that we need to outweigh the negativity in order to flourish.

Because our brains are like Velcro for negative (unpleasant) experiences and like Teflon (the stuff that makes frying pans non-stick) for positive (pleasant) ones, we need to intentionally notice and savour the positive experiences and feelings we have (Hanson 2010). We need three, four, five or six positive emotions to outweigh one negative emotion, although the exact ratio is hard to determine (Brown et al 2013) and will be different for everyone.

Due to our negativity bias we can be aware that there will be times when we need to take proactive steps to increase positives in our lives.

Here’s a few ways you can do it:

  • Scatter your day with things that you will enjoy (a walk, cup of tea, reading, exercise, a funny show, music)

  • Keep a gratitude journal

  • Stand tall, relax your shoulders down and back (good posture)

  • Savour the good by sharing it with someone

  • When you wash your hands do it mindfully

  • Practice the loving kindness meditation

  • Find the silver lining and opportunities that come out of disappointments.

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