You had a really good week,........
You had a really good week, but there was one event that spoiled it – and that is the only thing you can think about.
Or long ago, you did something cringingly embarrassing, and years later you still replay the memory, fresh, as if it happened yesterday. Perhaps you have received some positive feedback on work, yet there were one or two small criticisms which you find yourself fixating upon. Sound familiar?
This is something called the negativity bias, and it seems to be common to us all. We obsess with things that did not go well. We remember the mistakes and minimise the successes. Traumatic experiences can have a profound effect whilst ecstatically happy ones fade in our memories. An unpleasant moment in the day lingers; bad impressions last longer than good ones. We say that bad memories stick like Velcro, good memories stick like Teflon.
We understand the negativity bias to be a product of human evolution. When our evolutionary ancestors lived in relatively dangerous environments, those who assumed the worst and took appropriate action were more likely to survive than those who discounted the danger. Better to run away from the sunshine dappled in the long grass than wait around while a tiger or lion comes for its lunch.
In our modern society, this negativity bias does not always serve us well. It affects our sleep, our relationships and our sense of personal wellbeing. So here are some suggestions for moving beyond the negativity bias.
- Actively look out for good things. One of the tasks I regularly give to boys who seek help is to keep a Happiness Diary. This simply means that at night – the last thing you do before turning out the light is to ask the question: “what three things went well today?” and then to note what it was about them that went well. Ideally, write them down in a diary. If you have never done this, I challenge you to try it for 2 weeks and see what happens.
- Savouring. Give time to enjoying positive emotions. This might be the taste of the food in your mouth, or the feel of the sunshine on your skin. Pause what you are doing (if it is safe!) and give a few seconds of your attention to that thing. In so doing you generate a positive memory. Neurons that fire together wire together – as the saying goes. Actively pausing to notice the blue of the sky, the scent of the rose, the sound of your children playing creates a stronger positive memory.
- Turn the negative into positive. If a negative thought is preying upon your thinking, then actively look for a way to read that situation positively. Find a reason to reframe the negative, and if that’s hard, get someone to help you. Reframing the negative is the most helpful way of removing the sting of unhappy or painful thoughts.
There are clear evolutionary advantages to paying attention to potential threats. When our children are small, we actively encourage them to be careful in what we perceive to be a dangerous world. However, perhaps we can consider the degree to which we interpret the world negatively. I encourage you to try the happiness diary and track how many good things there are in your life.
Reverend Hewitt, Well-Being Coach