Supporting your most fulfilled life.

Focusing On The Negative Is Innate But It Doesn’t Have To Be Your Fate

Negativity is natural…

You have, undoubtedly noticed that humans have a tendency to place a disproportionate amount of attention on what’s going wrong in their lives over what’s going right. On what feels bad over what feels good. On losses over wins. On negative over positive feedback. On setbacks over breakthroughs. 

This is due to a cognitive bias known as negativity bias–our tendency to attend to, learn from and use negative information more than positive information. When positive and negative experiences are the same magnitude, we feel negative experiences more strongly. Negative experiences linger longer and influence our opinions to a much stronger degree than positive experiences. 

Even when we experience numerous good events in one day, negativity bias can cause us to focus on the sole bad thing that occurred. Our whole experience, no matter how good, can be colored by one small, bad thing.

Once upon a time, this was a feature in human design. Hypervigilance on threats kept our ancient ancestors alive.They had to notice the threat before it noticed them. 

Evolution hasn’t caught up with the present threats to our survival, where diseases exacerbated by distress are responsible for more deaths than any other cause. When we’re focused on the negative, our stress response is activated. 

Our once-helpful protective feature is a present-day risk factor for our health and well-being. A tendency to notice the bad more than the good affects your life experience and left unchecked, affects your results and relationships in life.

…but it doesn’t have to dominate

The exciting news (that, for now apparent reasons, I should emphasize at least 10 times as strongly as the previous paragraphs), is that our brains are malleable. With attention and practice, we can train our brains to reverse the negativity bias and find the authentic goodness that’s all around us.

With some focused effort, we can feel better, enjoy our lives more, have better relationships, get better results and positively affect our healthspan.

You don’t have to pretend to be positive

If you’re like me, you don’t find the platitude “keep your thoughts positive” to be particularly helpful. A well-meaning person posted that on a sign in the restroom at work a few years ago. 

Ironically, I took issue with that suggestion to keep my thoughts positive. As Martha Beck says in her book, The Way of Integrity, “A cheerful thought can feel like soul murder if you know it isn’t true.” So, false positivity is not the way to override your negativity bias.

Simply choose an empowering thought

You don’t have to pretend that you’re not sad, not disappointed, not concerned, not overwhelmed, etc. In fact, it’s beneficial to allow, rather than suppress, your feelings. But even when you have those feelings, you can choose an empowering perspective of a situation. 

Because our minds automatically amplify the negative, we must be intentional about our inner-dialogue to remain constructive and effective in the face of setbacks and difficulty.

If I knew who posted the “positive thought” sign, I’d give them this growth mindset/fixed mindset figure to share in “loo” of the other, so to speak. 

A growth mindset is a learning mindset. It’s choosing development over validation, faith over defeat, trust over worry, and your inner coach over your inner critic.

growth mindset

And rewire your brain to find the good

Now that I’ve cautioned about false positivity and offered cultivating a growth mindset as an expansion of “keep your thoughts positive,” let’s explore how your thoughts and habits shape your brain and how to use that to change your brain structure to reduce your negativity bias and support your well-being and life experience.

Left unsupervised, your mind will focus on negative experiences to a much larger extent than positive experiences. The more you focus on negative experiences, the easier it becomes for your mind to head straight to negative responses.

The neurons that carry chemical information throughout your body move along pathways that become high speed railroads the more often the neurons travel that particular path. In this way, your mental habits become lasting neural traits.

However, you can change your brain structure by changing your mental habits. Thanks to a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity,” with attention, you can redirect the neurons down a more constructive and effective path and with repetition, you can make this pathway the default.

Override negativity bias in the moment

All change starts with awareness. When I catch myself dwelling on the one person who didn’t benefit from my workshop, feeling discouraged and giving no reflection to the twenty who loved it, I’m reminded to direct attention to the positive. I can consider if I can learn something from the person’s feedback to improve going forward. And I can acknowledge my efforts and success and delight in the feeling.

When you notice yourself generating negative thoughts, including negative self-talk, interrupt them. Reframe the situation with a positive “what if” scenario or just simply direct your attention to another sense. What colors do you see, what is the furthest thing you can hear, what is the closest thing you can hear? Remember, you’re interrupting the processes that are structuring your brain and future mental habits. You’re worth the effort!

Train your brain to find the good

Mindfulness practices such as gratitude practice, breathing exercises, and meditation can help lessen the asymmetry in negative to positive reflection so you’re more resilient the next time you’re exposed to a stimulus that would normally put you in a funk.

Another practice for cultivating resilience is to savor the positive experiences in your life. In this way, you can turn positive experiences in your life into useful structure in your brain. You can feel more love, improve executive function and strengthen your resilience.

Psychologist Rick Hanson developed H.E.A.L., a method to take in the good in your life and transform the experience into lasting resilience.

Have a good experience.
Enrich the good experience. To help install this activated mental state, let it last, let the feeling grow in your body.
Absorb it. Sense an intent that it’s sinking into you.
Link the positive experience with something negative (optional). If you can stay with the positive feeling while thinking of the negative, you can heal old pain.

Just like physical exercise, these practices take intentionality and repetition. Each time you interrupt a negative thought pattern, you lessen the strength of your negativity bias. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.

In a fast-paced world where conversations often center around fear and lack, combined with our default tendency to focus on the negative, it’s worth being intentional about where you place your attention.

You can cultivate the ability to find the good in each fresh moment. To be resilient, effective and filled with joy. And to help those around you do the same. There’s so much good available to us, let’s find all of it!

Coaching supports positive change in the brain

Emerging research shows that brain-focused coaching, or coaching with compassion, activates growth-oriented brain circuitry that supports lasting habit change. While you can’t directly observe physiological changes in the way that you can observe changes to your thinking, behavior and measurable physical traits, brain scan evidence suggests that coaching activates your brain’s motivation system which helps to automate goal-directed behaviors (Puspa, 2022). Partnering with a coach to install a constructive, growth mindset is a worthwhile goal for overall well-being and success.

Why not start coaching today?

Reference: Puspa, L. (2022). Brain-Focused Coaching. In: Greif, S., Möller, H., Scholl, W., Passmore, J., Müller, F. (eds) International Handbook of Evidence-Based Coaching. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-81938-5_7

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