Mindset

Staying Positive With a Negative Brain

Our instinctual focus on problems and threats can undermine our health and blind us to blessings
BY Emma Suttie TIMEMay 17, 2022 PRINT

It’s safe to say nearly everyone has been feeling a bit negative recently, especially in the past two years.

A dramatic rise in depression and anxiety is usually a good indicator that we’re collectively not feeling our best. Research from the Boston University School of Public Health showed that the rise in depression during the pandemic first seen in March and April 2020 increased by March and April 2021, climbing to 32.8 percent—affecting 1 in 3 American adults.

But despite what’s happening in the world right now, there may be another reason we’re all feeling so gloomy, and it’s in our brains. Research has shown that our brains react more strongly to adverse events and situations than positive ones, which might explain why it sometimes seems that we fall so easily into negative feelings and find it hard to let them go.

Humans and the Negativity Bias

Why is it that one critical comment from a coworker or someone cutting you off in traffic is enough to ruin your day? We often ruminate on these minor irritations, allowing them to take over our thoughts and taint what might otherwise be a great day. So why do our minds seem to focus on and place more importance on bad things instead of good things?

Science suggests that we have a bias.

Abundant empirical evidence indicates that humans tend to focus on, learn from, and use negative information from their environment far more than positive information. This behavior has a name: negativity bias—our tendency to process and remember negative stimuli more than positive stimuli and dwell on adverse events after the fact.

Although it may seem strange at first glance, this bias can be helpful. Our not-so-distant ancestors lived in a world full of physical danger in which animals, cold, starvation, and war required that we be extra-vigilant about personal safety as a matter of survival.

Negativity Bias in the Modern World

Today, we live in a much safer world, and the threats to our health and well-being are generally more insidious than an attack from a ferocious animal.

While there are fewer threats to our personal health and safety, and they are usually less catastrophic, our brains continue to look for new things to worry about. As a result, we constantly scan for dangerous situations and expend a lot of resources focusing our attention on them.

This safety mechanism in our brains may be making the world, and our daily existence, seem more unpleasant than it really is. Our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to negativity, which explains why so many of us tend to focus on the negative aspects of our lives and give precious little attention to the positive things—like the relief of knowing that our brains function this way.

Negativity and Health

Many traditional medical practices have long recognized the relationship between our emotions and health, and science continues to explore this connection.

A 1995 study in the Journal of Advancement in Medicine found that an episode of anger suppresses the immune system for up to six hours after the event, and that, conversely, feelings of care and compassion give the immune system a boost for up to six hours afterward.

Emotions that we may label as unpleasant can also be destructive to our health.

Take cynicism, for example. A 2014 study published in the journal Neurology linked higher levels of cynicism—a general distrust of people and their motives—later in life to a greater risk of developing dementia; the findings accounted for many other risk factors such as age, sex, smoking, and heart health.

Cynicism may hurt your heart, too. A 2009 study in the journal Circulation collected data from more than 97,000 women and found that the most cynical participants were more likely to have heart disease. The study also noted that the women who were more pessimistic had a higher chance of dying throughout the study than those who were more optimistic.

Your Brain on Positivity

All of this information isn’t meant to feed any negativity, but rather can help us understand why we may easily get stuck in negative loops and find them so difficult to escape. The good news is that we can train our brains to be more positive and improve our health in the process.

Awareness

The first step is simply being aware that our brains work this way; it’s helpful to know that you’re more sensitive to negative stimuli from your environment and tend to lock onto it. In “The Power of Bad,” co-author Roy Baumeister says that the bulk of their research into the negativity bias shows that bad things have two, three, or four times the impact of good things. He uses the example of a relationship to demonstrate his point: If you have done something to annoy your spouse and want to make it up to them, you will have to do three or perhaps four nice things just to come out even.

Change the Focus

The next time you notice yourself stewing over a passing comment from a friend or fixating on the latest catastrophic news story, tell yourself you need to look for some more positive news. Go outside for a walk or listen to some of your favorite music. Do something you know makes you feel good. Changing your environment and stimulus is hugely helpful and will pull you out of the cycle you may be stuck in.

Foster Positivity

This may seem difficult to believe right now, but there are all kinds of wonderful things happening in the world; you may just not be hearing about them. Bad news dominates the airwaves, but positive stories are out there; you just have to work a little harder to find them. I’ve been inviting the Good News Network into my inbox for years for this very reason. The Epoch Times Inspired section offers another uplifting source.

Another way to foster a more positive mindset, suggested by the authors of “The Power of Bad,” is a gratitude journal to counteract our inclination toward gloom and doom. Seeking out, focusing on, and writing daily about the positive aspects of our lives is an excellent way to foster positivity and can help rewire the brain away from our negative tendencies.

Instinctively, we know that negative things don’t feel good and positive ones do. We can feel the effects when watching news footage about wars or natural disasters. These are extreme examples, but even minor negative events can penetrate our psyche and dominate our mood, taking up valuable space in our hearts and minds. And this is where all that mindfulness comes in. There is beauty, love, and joy in most of our lives; we only need to identify it, focus on it, and cultivate it.

For me, everyday positive moments are:

  • An unsolicited hug from one of my children
  • Watching birds at the feeders
  • Petting the cat
  • Tending to the plants in my garden

These things make me joyful and feed my heart. As a result, I try to make time for them every day, and I consider them a vital part of my health care regimen.

It’s worth taking some time to think about what brings you joy and to make time for those things as often as you can. The activities that make you happier and healthier combat the negativity competing for your energy and attention. If we all took the time to do more positive things that bring us joy, it could not only benefit our lives, but also help our brains see the world as a happier, more positive place.

Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
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