Humans are hardwired for negativity. We dwell on the bad. We assume the worst. We’re way more likely to remember that one time our boss told us we were sloppy than the 10 times she told us we were great. And as much as we try to look on the bright side of half-empty (-full!) glasses, we’re just not built that way. The human brain developed millennia ago, when danger roamed the savanna, ready to ambush and kill us at any moment, and that led to what Roy Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, has dubbed the “negativity bias” that still governs how we think.
The only trouble is that for all the times it might keep us alive, negativity bias also has a way of causing us a ton of unnecessary stress. “The negativity bias gives us a warped view of theworld,” says John Tierney, who worked with Baumeister to coauthor the upcoming book The Power of Bad. We focus only on what’s going wrong (in the present) and assume that it will keep going wrong (in the future). We despair, lose hope and conclude that things won’t change. As if that weren’t already bad enough, Twitter, Instagram and other feeds hit us with crisis after crisis. But there’s some hope: through their research, Baumeister and Tierney have found real solutions that can help us fight our instincts and keep us out of a daily emotional funnel cloud.
1. UNLEASH THE POWER OF THE RULE OF FOUR
Five to one. That’s the famous Gottman Ratio, a predictive formula showing that couples tend to stay together when they have five times as many positive experiences as negative ones. Baumeister thinks of it as a positivity ratio, and when it comes to your kids, your spouse, your underlings and bosses, he recommends aiming for a more attainable ratio of about four to one. For every negative comment you feel compelled to make, make four positive ones. Baumeister even believes that this four-to-one ratio applies to other aspects of your life. For instance, if you’re having sex with your partner four times for every one argument (sex because of arguments probably doesn’t count), then your relationship is likely positive.
2. REMEMBER THE HONEYMOON
Nostalgia used to be a dirty word. People prone to indulging in nostalgia were thought to be depressed or living in the past, says Tierney. But recent research has shown something else entirely.
Far from keeping you down, nostalgia – yearning for past positive events or relationships – can actually pick you up. In one study, people who were prompted to think of an experience that made them “long for the past” before work reported feeling more motivated and therefore worked harder than those who were asked to think of an ordinary life event. Another study even showed that people experiencing nostalgia judged a room to be warmer than those remembering an everyday event. Your move: spend a moment before your workday begins to relive a special memory. Then extend the good vibes by writing down four keywords that best describe or recapture that memory.
3. PLAY THE (GLAD) GAME
You may not like tooting your own horn, but a proven way to combat negativity is to heighten positive experiences, and highlighting the positives gives them extra power. “When something good happens, sharing that good news with people you care about makes it more important, gives it a bigger impact and helps you develop a bond with the person you’re sharing with,” explains Tierney. Pay attention to and celebrate other people’s victories, too. If they share good news with you, really hear it. A “That’s great!”/“Amazing!”/“Tell me about it!” ratchets up positivity. Even better if you put down your phone for the story and your response. On the flip side, you can also draw strength from negative experiences. Baumeister points to Shelley Taylor’s research on breast cancer patients. “The surprising thing was that most of them ended up talking about it as a positive experience,” he says. They saw it as an opportunity to make positive changes: to appreciate life, to focus on the present, to manage stress. One way to reframe is to think about what you can learn from a negative experience, not how it holds you back.
4. CHECK YOURSELF
“Why do you think you’re a good [intimate] partner?” That’s what Baumeister asks in his senior psych class at FSU. Many of his students list what they do well, saying that maybe being a good listener or a good sexual partner gives them an edge. It’s good to be good. “But what makes more impact,” says Baumeister, “is not doing the bad things.” Because bad always outweighs good, what you do is less important than what you don’t do. Sometimes that means holding your tongue, he adds, and putting a lid on the judging or curtness for what are minor infractions.
5. FOCUS ON THE PRESENT
For the majority of us, our greatest negativity is behind us – in our tendency to dwell on past mistakes and regrets, according to Baumeister’s current research. The future also carries negativity: stress about outcomes and potential failures. The present, however, is something of a golden mean, a place away from all that. “The mindfulness people are right,” Baumeister says. “Keep your attention focused on the here and now.” Catch yourself regretting the past? Bring yourself back to now. Worrying about tomorrow/next month/dinner tonight? Bring yourself back to now. If that’s too hard, just write down one thing you’re grateful for every day. That pushes away the negative and lets the positive flow in.
When good is bad
Employ these strategies from social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney to use the negative to your advantage
1. DON’T RELY ON THE CARROT
Rewarding your children for good grades (by giving them money) is less powerful than punishing them for bad (grounding them). Things are a little different in the workplace: motivating employees with both punishments and rewards has been shown to increase productivity.
2. STRIVE TO FAIL
“It’s the mistakes you make – that’s where you learn and improve,” says Tierney. For instance, one study showed that students who attempted and failed a first round of maths problems later outperformed their peers who had been immediately taught the correct strategy.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO THE ONE-STARS
If you’re a business owner, Baumeister suggests being attentive to negative feedback. That’s because negativity can hurt a business more than positivity can help. Going above and beyond for customers is not nearly as effective as focusing on how to minimise and fix their unhappiness.