The Negativity Bias: What is it, and how to overcome it!

happiness mindfulness

Imagine living in prehistoric hunter-gatherer times. You’re out with your tribe looking for food. What would have been more important... the ability to recognize opportunities (such as a new food source), or the ability to recognize danger (such as a fast approaching lion)?

The danger we can fend off today means we have an opportunity to live to find food for tomorrow.

This is how our brain has evolved over a very long period of time - to prioritize threats over opportunities - to look for and respond to potentially bad news over good news. This is known as our Negativity Bias.

Of course, most of us no longer have to worry about being attacked by a wild animal. However, our brain still reacts in similar ways with the modern-day equivalent such as: being late to work and the boss yells at you; having an argument with a loved one; traffic; and of course internal “threats” like the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve, or when we ruminate or worry excessively about the future.

When our brain reacts to these perceived threats our amygdala (which is a part of the brain that assesses emotional significance) prepares our body to fight, flee, or freeze - just like it would in a survival situation. When this happens we lose our ability to be creative, to innovate, to make effective decisions, and to problem-solve strategically.

So how do we overcome this Negativity Bias?

There are two strategies I want to share with you. This first is to be mindful of the “negative”. If you’re in a less-than-ideal situation and have unwanted thoughts and feelings that have been triggered, just allow the sensations to occur and see them for what they are… it’s just activity of the brain!

It’s just your amygdala acting up because it’s being overprotective.

The goal is not to try to stop any unwanted thoughts or feelings, but instead, to not fuse with them - don’t make them a part of you! Remember, it’s just your million-year-old-brain responding as if there was a threat. Begin to have a non-judgmental view of thoughts and feelings that arise from situations that might be stressful. That way you can assess the situation for what it really is, the reality, instead of reacting as if you’re in danger.

The second strategy is to hold the positive. Because our brain loves to respond to the negative, to potential threats, and we want to re-wire our brain to not be so reactive, we also need to savor the positive moments.

For example, there’s a reserve at the back of where I’m living at the moment, which I go for walks around most days. At one end there’s a hill that overlooks the city, and you can see the mountains in the distance. Recently, I was walking back from the top of the hill at the exact time and place where the sun can be seen setting over the mountains. The sky was painted with oranges and pinks, an incredible sight. I paused for a moment, “amazing”, and was about to keep walking but stopped and reminded myself to “hold it a moment longer”.

When we hold these moments, even with such simple things, we begin to train our brain to give more attention to the things we deem meaningful, which when combined with the mindfulness strategy will reduce our negativity bias - and help re-wire our brain for greater levels of health, happiness, and high-performance.

Thanks for reading.

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