Positive on purpose: Overcoming a bias toward negativity

Stock image, St. George News

FEATURE — A life dominated by negativity can be stressful, and stress causes wear and tear on our bodies, minds and relationships. Have you ever noticed the tendency in yourself, or in others, to pay more attention to the negative things or problems in life than the positive things and aspects of life that are going well?

This is called negativity bias, which is the notion that things of a more negative nature, such as unpleasant thoughts, emotions, experiences or interactions with others, will have a greater effect on a person’s emotional, mental or psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things, even when events are of equal intensity.

While I am not suggesting that we ignore challenges and difficulties, we do need to pay attention to the ratio of positive to negative experiences in our lives. For example, marriage and relationship researchers have come to recommend that for relationships to survive, a couple needs to have at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction.

In many areas of our lives, negativity can overwhelm us and begin to become chronic. Sometimes we might develop symptoms such as anxiety, hyper vigilance and distorted patterns of thinking. If negativity dominates our conversation, we might even start to notice that others distance themselves from us because they experience us as negative. This can turn into a vicious cycle that leads us to be unhappy.

Fortunately, there are many steps we can take in order to counteract negativity bias without invalidating the concerns we may have in our lives.

What you can do in your head

Be aware of negativity bias and intentionally pay more attention to positive experiences. Eat a delicious meal slowly and really savor it. Pay attention to the positive sensations you get from your food, including tastes, textures and smells that are pleasant.

What you can do with your actions

Intentionally bring more positive things into our lives. Don’t wait until you feel positive to pursue positive experiences. Schedule in something positive, like a massage, a fishing trip, a movie with friends. If money is tight, there are still positive things to plan into your life, like a walk in the park, watching a sunrise or a phone call to a family member or friend.

What you can do in your relationships  

Prioritize. Avoid overloading  your relationships with too many negative or difficult topics. Don’t try to fix every problem, correct every annoying behavior or have all the hard conversations all at once.

Pick the most important issues to deal with, and then work to have positive interactions in between facing challenges.

What you can do in your heart

Have gratitude. Regularly think of things you normally take for granted (for example, access to clean drinking water), and imagine your life without those things. This can often help us create  an experience of appreciation for the good things in our lives, which can help us to feel more positive.

Again, I am not suggesting that it is a good idea to ignore or push away all negative experiences. Avoiding difficult conversations with a spouse, child or other family members and friends can be harmful to our relationships. I’m also not suggesting that we need to put on our rose-colored glasses and trust everyone and everything.

What I am suggesting, however, is that if we make the effort to increase positive thoughts, experiences and feelings in life, then we will be happier, healthier and more capable of tackling challenges without getting overwhelmed by negativity.

Andy Thompson
Andy Thompson

Written by Andy Thompson for St. George Health and Wellness magazine and St. George News.

Andy is a marriage and family therapist at the St. George Center for Couples and Families. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a masters in marriage and family therapy. Andy enjoys the outdoors, fishing and spending time with his
wife and baby boy.

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