Last week I experienced a particularly stressful day. It had been a long time since I’d felt that intensity of stress. I had to deal with an extremely angry person. It seemed that spilling out their anger in any given scenario was their default communication style. They appeared oblivious to their own behaviour, which highlighted to me that they were probably experiencing difficulties elsewhere in their life. Nonetheless, even though I was practising compassion, I found it hard to feel anything but stress when being yelled at continuously. I felt like my day was ruined. But then I remembered the reality of life and our tendency as humans. Humans unfortunately have an in-built negativity bias. And there is way not to bow to our inherited disposition and to continue enjoying our day regardless of bad events happening around us. But before we get to solutions, let’s investigate negativity bias further.
What is negativity bias?
Negativity bias is the tendency for negative things/situations to have more of an impact on the human psyche than if a positive thing occurs. Simplified, if one really good event and one really bad event happened to you on the same day, the likelihood is that you would be recounting the bad event to your best friend as it would have made more of an impact on you than the really good event. So if you won the lottery but your beloved pet dog died on the same day, you’d likely be more upset over your dog than happy that you’d won the lottery.
Why does negativity bias occur?
Yuval Noah Hirari notes about humans’ negative tendencies in his bestselling book, Sapiens. Countless psychology and mindfulness textbooks also capture this human characteristic. The reason behind it? We have an in-built system that registers threat so that we can respond accordingly in order to survive. When teaching stress awareness/reduction workshops, I like to use the analogy of imagining you’re a stereotype caveman or cavewoman on the savannah. You’re going about your normal day, when all of a sudden a lion appears. Your body goes into survival mode. Your sympathetic nervous system, better known as the inner ‘fight or flight’ mode kicks in. Cortisol pumps through your body and any thoughts and feelings inessential to your survival jump out of the window. You’re left with the burgeoning necessity to escape the threat of being eaten by a lion. Objective thought disappears and you’re left solely with what is required to survive.
Of course, these days the likelihood of us getting eaten by a lion are slim. However, we still have this feature built within us even though we have evolved since our caveman/cavewoman days. Threats now more commonly come in the form of altercations with other people or troubling situations. However, our body still treats the situation as a physical threat. We feel pumped full of adrenaline, and our brain becomes wholly focused on survival. Both mentally and physically, we are one with the situation. This mono-focus (so to speak) is a reason why bad things seem to affect us disproportionately to good things.
But I don’t want to feel bad, so what can I do?
Firstly, don’t try to push your suffering or feelings aside. This will only lead to suppression, which causes its own set of problems. Acknowledge that you feel sad/upset/anxious/frustrated/angry. Watch the emotion run through you. Remember to be kind to yourself when practising this form of mindfulness. It’s not easy not to judge yourself or a situation. It’s a work in progress. So if you find yourself judging or creating internal commentary, take notice. If you find yourself noticing your judgements or dialogue dragging you further into despair, make a mental note of that too. After you take note of your emotion or any passing thoughts, focus on the flow of your breath. In and out. Gradually, as you practice more and more to notice how negative situations affect you and how much you internalise them, the internalisation begins to lessen. The more you catch yourself in the act of mentally digging a larger hole than the initial thing that upset you, the less easy it is for your mind to continue this habit. Eventually, you may still feel upset (as you are a human after all), but the internalisation of that upset will hold less power than it once did.
Finally, practise gratitude
What I realised last week was even though one bad thing had happened to me, there were several good things that happened on the same day that really deserved acknowledgement. Some good things seem so small that it would be easy to not notice them at all or to take them for granted. I was lucky enough to have a nice evening, attending a massage treatment and going to a jazz café. I could feel the stress of the day still present, but felt extreme gratitude to have such welcome evening plans. On less extravagant days, even acknowledging the support network around me, a relaxing evening at home, a cup of my favourite herbal tea or the comfort of a comfy bed are all things that I hold a great amount of gratitude for. The small things make up the larger tapestry of life. The beauty of a work of art is captured in its detail or meaning. And so it is similar with life. Life is beautiful when we care and appreciate the small details. An easy way to start practising gratitude is to buy a pocket notebook and jot down things you are grateful for throughout your day, no matter how small. When you fall on hard times, open your book to remind yourself of what you are thankful for within your life. It will open your eyes to the myriad of things you can sometimes miss in the macro events of a day. It will help you to knock your negativity bias into check and remember that difficult times will pass and there is plenty to be grateful for.