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Why Are We So Negative?

Have you ever noticed that half of your conversations are based on complaining? You would probably need four hands to count the amount of conversations you’ve had this winter that began by complaining about the cold and twice that to complain about your workload. For whatever reason, it is much easier to engage in negative small talk compared to striking up a more optimistic conversation.

The same can be said for stories reflected in the news. While we have all heard the tragic stories of fired employees who return to their former workplaces to take vengeance on their former bosses, the media fails to report on people who view losing a job as an opportunity to find more fulfilling work or discover a new talent. Similarly, you are much more likely to remember negative feedback than positive feedback. You may overlook the amount of times your friend gives you a compliment, but you’ll never forget the accidental insult.

So why? Why do we always fall prey to ruminating on the negative?

Apparently, biology explains it for us. Humans were designed to be more aware of negative circumstances and consequences as it helped our ancestors survive. As cavemen, humans gathered food for families. Those who survived did so because they were more attuned to attacks from saber-toothed tigers. In modern times, we don’t necessarily have to outrun predators, but we still have an evolutionary negative bias.

Negative bias is a tendency to have greater sensitivity to negative events compared to positive events. Researchers in psychology find that negative events weigh close to three times more than positive events. Because of this, people are more likely to bring up negative thoughts in conversation because it’s what we remember the most and what most people can relate to. That’s why it feels like it’s easier to talk to a stranger about how much your professor sucks than to converse about their great teaching skills.

So how can we over come this innate negativity bias? While negative experiences frequently are unavoidable, reframing or reinterpreting the feedback loop is possible. Redefining negative situations in more positive or humorous terms counters the adverse psychological effects that would otherwise be experienced. The trick is to make positive events stickier than negative ones.

Here are four research-based techniques to do just that:

1.     Enjoy the good stuff. Studies in neuroscience tell us that while negative events may be seared into your mind almost instantly, it takes 5 to 20 seconds to emotionally absorb positive events. Therefore, when something good happens to you, stop and take a second to bask in it. Focus on your senses, how the event makes you feel, hear, smell, touch or see, to make the good stuff become good memories.

2.     Express gratitude. Many studies show that writing down thanks through thank you notes and cards helps us remember the good our friends and families have shown us. If you don’t have time for a card, just take the couple extra minutes to call your mom and thank her for the care package.

3.     Tune out for a while. A lot of our negativity is viewed though the Internet. Through Twitter battles and Facebook comments, negativity seems to intensify on social media. Turning off your devices and choosing to stay away from the negativity for a couple of days or even a couple of hours could help you avoid negative feelings of your own.

4.     Make accurate judgments. Part of the negativity bias that exaggerates negative feelings comes from overestimating threats. Mother Nature would rather us perceive something as more dangerous than it is so we react right away. However, dissecting every threat we face in a rational manner isn’t always realistic. We can neutralize this cognitive distortion by giving ourselves a few minutes to distance ourselves from what happened. Remember when you got upset when you were little and your parents told you to take a deep breath? The same concept can be applied to your everyday life as you face challenges. Taking that extra second can allow you to evaluate a situation more appropriately, instead of jumping to conclusions.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by personal negativity, or if you have a particularly negative friend bringing you down, try to incorporate these small practices into your life. Because nobody likes a Negative Nancy.

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