For some reason, it’s so much easier for me to replay negative events that happen in my life than it is for me to focus on the positive. At a given moment, my mind might be on overdrive, ruminating over my near-accident because someone cut me off in traffic, the time I played the wrong note in my sixth grade band rehearsal (embarrassing), why I don’t want to go out to dinner with my successful friend because I always end up feeling inferior (oh, and here are the reasons why I’m inferior…), or the one thing my boss said I needed to improve on even though 99% of what was said during our conversation was positive.
Obsession over things I interpret as negative is yet another one of those things which I lovingly term, “useless evolution tools.” Among these useless tools are our sweet tooth and penchant for a fatty diet – held over from a time when food was scarce and ye olde cavemen needed to survive. These days, I don’t need to get ice-cream every time I go to the grocery store, just because it’s there, nor do I need to hunt for my food or make cave drawings.
As for negativity, there’s no doubt that I could do without the constant stream of shoulds, coulds, and faults that my mind comes up with daily. So, I got curious as to what causes this constant focus on negativity, and found that apparently, I’m not alone in this phenomena.
There have been numerous studies about this – what psychologists call, the negativity bias. According to Professor Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford who studied this human trait, “Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events – and use stronger words to describe them – than happy ones.” One possible explanation is based yet again, on human evolution – namely, the need to survive. Hunters who remembered the way their friend got eaten by a saber-toothed tiger might be a little more careful on their next hunting expedition or decide to use a different path.
Unfortunately, knowing the reasons behind it doesn’t make negativity any easier to combat. Luckily, I have developed some tried and tested strategies for making it all go away – at least for the next five minutes. Try them yourself. They just might make break you out of your doomsday mood.
1) Unplug. There’s a reason the news mostly focuses on the negative – it sells. There’s nothing wrong with being aware of world events, but notice how your mind and body react to this constant barrage of news. Practicing a 24- or 48-hour technology fast can help bring you back to what’s real, true, and most importantly, good in life.
2) Remember this saying: “The only constant is change.” No matter how bad things seem, things are guaranteed to change. Quietly affirm, “I am not stuck in this situation.” There is always an out, but sometimes, things do take awhile to shift. Try to be patient and distract yourself in the meanwhile.
3) Re-frame and re-direct. When I can’t shut off my brain, I write, go for a walk, read a book, watch a happy movie, or do anything positive to get my mind off things for awhile. In today’s world of goal-setting and multi-tasking, it seems like relaxation is at best, a luxury, or at worst, a sign of laziness. However, we all need a rest and sometimes it’s okay to take a break, especially if it helps to shift your mind into the positive.
4) Be grateful. Yes, I know – gratitude has been mentioned so many times that it’s started to sound cliche, but in truth, when we practice gratitude it makes whatever is happening right now seem not so bad. So your boss is a jerk and you’ve given up hope of finding a new job? Be grateful that you are still employed and able to pay your bills. Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to shift vibration, which will help you attract more of what you want instead of more of the same.
5) Let go. There’s a common rule surrounding brain psychology and that is, whatever you try not to think about will automatically be pushed to the forefront. For some reason, when told not to think of a pink elephant, that’s the first place our mind goes. If I had to guess, I’d say that was another useless evolution tool, but it’s with us anyway. So, instead of trying to stop the negative stream of thoughts, encourage yourself in a dialogue. For instance, if you’re on a tailspin about how rude the clerk at the store was, how you’ll never shop there again, their products are overpriced, etc. STOP, and ask yourself some questions.
You could ask, “Why am I so angry at this event?” which would uncover old emotions, feelings of being hurt, guilt at how you might have treated people when you were a store clerk, etc. At which point, it’s time to let go. Another helpful question that stops me right in my tracks when I get caught in the negativity spiral is, “Is this really true?” Sure, I might think so and so is a jerk, but what about all of the kindness they’ve shown me in the past? Or, I might think I’m fat and I can never stick to a diet plan, but what about the time this week when I chose to bring salad to work instead of buying pizza? As mentioned in my previous article on afformations, questions are a great way to get around your brain’s current circuitry and re-wire it towards the positive.
We can all agree that it’s easier to be negative than to remain positive. In some ways, I think we’ve created a culture where positive people are seen as exceptional, unrealistic, or somehow different than the rest of us. Whatever comes up, my task is not to judge it, but instead, to focus on what it is I want. If I want happiness and positivity than I’ve got to reach for it. Only then do I have a chance to achieve it.
*Clifford Nass quote and the phrase, “the negativity bias” were sourced from the 2012 New York Times article, “Praise is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall,” by Alina Tugend. If you’re interested, you can find it here.