Do You Emphasize the Negative and Minimize the Positive?

Here are four ways to start being more positive right now.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Research and personal experiences show us the profound impact that gratitude can have on our well-being. Yet over and over again, our brains redirect to what is not quite right in our lives.

Perhaps the wine is okay but not exactly our preference, the steak is not rare or well-done enough, the bed a bit soft, the rug kind of scratchy, our friends are boring, our family is not fun enough. Walking around constantly feeling as if things are not good enough will make you believe you can never be at peace, content, and truly feel good about yourself. You focus so much on what is wrong that you can’t take in what is right.

You are not entirely to blame. The negativity bias is the term used to describe the fact that undesirable thoughts, emotions, and interactions have a greater impact on how we feel than do our positive or neutral experiences. In fact, research shows that people are much better at remembering negative versus positive things, including angry versus happy faces, and take more time and mental energy processing negative events than positive ones.

Perhaps the negativity bias helped our species survive. After all—from a survival standpoint—the cost of overlooking a negative is far greater than the cost of overlooking a positive. But in today’s world, when few of us face real physical threats in our daily lives, this bias can result in negative thinking, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Here are four ways to gain control over this negative outlook and start feeling more at peace.

1.  Recognize if you are existing in survival mode. Many live their lives in a quiet panic, scanning for threats in their social, family or professional life. They anticipate what will go wrong or what flaw could present and then go to work trying to prevent its occurrence. When they are unsuccessful in this, they summon their energy to put out the fire swiftly and efficiently. All of this productivity is reinforcing over time and so can become a person’s entire existence. The cost of this efficiency is great, however, because perspective and energy are continually pulled back to the negative. Even if only momentarily, train yourself to not just focus on the negative.

2.  Ask yourself if your thoughts are perfectionistic or realistic. So often we have expectations that things should go a certain ‘right’ or ‘good’ way. When things don't go as planned, we feel we’ve failed somehow. So then we work in overdrive pushing for perfection to no avail. The reality is that life is bumpy. No one has a perfect existence. Stop setting yourself up for feeling defeated by this fact and accept reality as a meandering path of both positive and negative experiences.

3.  Focus on your experience instead of results and goal completion. There is no end to the work of life, to adjusting and tweaking what doesn’t go quite right, to making new plans when the original ones are foiled, to ending relationships and starting new ones, to restarting after a setback or failure, to getting out of our comfortable, warm beds on a snowy December morning. The moment we achieve a goal, it is sweet, but this feeling is short-lived. Most of our experience and time is spent in the toil of life—the doing and the adjusting and the readjusting. Instead of focusing on everything being perfect and lovely for one shiny day, focus on how to be present and even at peace with your experience in the here and now.

4.  Begin habituating to what is good in your life. This starts by forcing your brain to stop tuning out. We can get so far down the rabbit hole of what isn’t right in our lives that we lose perspective. We forget what we have—that we are alive, generally healthy, warm, and well-fed. Consider people less fortunate than yourself or ways your life could be worse than it is at this moment in time. Every day, think of three things for which you are grateful. Say these things out loud to yourself or to a friend or write them down. Frequently pull back from the swamp of details in your life and you will gain a truer perspective of your overall experiences.

In my book, Building Self-Esteem: 5 Steps, I offer more tools for helping you to feel better about yourself.