The Brain Has A Negativity Bias. Here's How To Be Happy Anyway

Photo: Vicki Grafton Photography

Let's conduct an experiment: Take a moment to think back over your day; which experiences stand out for you?

For most of us, it’s the negative ones. Enjoyable, useful experiences—like smiling at a friend, finishing a task, or learning something new—typically happen many times a day, but they usually wash through the brain like water through a sieve, barely leaving a trace. Meanwhile, our stressful, often harmful experiences—like getting stuck in traffic and being late for a meeting, feeling brushed aside by a friend or misunderstood by a partner, or ruminating about worries or resentments—routinely produce lasting changes in neural structure or function.

This is your brain’s negativity bias in action, which makes it like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones. This built-in bias is no one’s fault. It’s the result of the 600-million-year evolution of the nervous system.

Meet the brain's negativity bias.

Our ancient ancestors had to pursue positive experiences ("carrots" such as food and shelter) while avoiding negative ones (or "sticks" like hungry predators). If they failed to get a carrot, they’d still have a chance to find one tomorrow. But if they failed to avoid a stick—WHACK, no more carrots forever.

As a result, our brain naturally:

  • Scans for bad news (out in the world and inside the body and mind)
  • Over-focuses on the negative (losing sight of the big picture)
  • Overreacts (for example, people usually care more about losing $100 than gaining the same amount of money)
  • Quickly stores negative experiences (especially in emotional, somatic, or social memory)
  • Becomes gradually sensitized to the negative (through repeated activity of the stress hormone cortisol)

While the negativity bias made sense back on the Serengeti plains, today it causes needless stress and suffering, unnecessary wear and tear on the body, and many pointless conflicts with others. It also reduces the healing and growth we gain from everyday beneficial experiences. This bias is a kind of well-intended universal learning disability in a brain designed for peak performance...in Stone Age conditions.

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How to overcome your brain's desire to be negative.

In effect, Mother Nature is tilted toward raw survival but against long-term health and well-being. To level the playing field, we need to tilt toward authentic positive experiences and actively to help them change the brain for the better. In my new book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, I explain exactly how to do this for a lifetime of happiness. Here's where to start:

1. Observe negative experiences from calm strength.

Suppressing or resisting unpleasant, stressful experiences just makes them worse. Instead, let them be while you observe them mindfully, with acceptance and self-compassion. Label them softly to yourself, such as "feeling hurt" or "wanting revenge." This will help calm down the amygdala, which is like the alarm bell of the brain, and stop reinforcing negative experiences. Breathe so that your exhalations are as long as or longer than your inhalations, which will naturally increase the activity of the calming and centering parasympathetic branch of your nervous system. Recall times you felt determined and capable, and focus on the sense of strength and endurance.

2. Look for the small good facts in every day.

Since the negativity bias narrows the field of attention, we need to make a habit of widening awareness to recognize more of the beneficial things in our lives. We’re actually surrounded by good facts: Someone was friendly, a light switch worked, a child laughed, a flower bloomed. Even in the hardest moments, there are still hopeful, beautiful, interesting, useful things—if only the good intentions and virtues inside one’s own mind. In fact, the positive emotions that come with recognizing what is good help us face, cope with, and recover from adversity, loss, and trauma.

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3. When you have a good experience—really take it in.

When you are having a beneficial experience, perhaps thankfulness, feeling cared about, a sense of determination, or realizing there’s a more skillful way to interact with someone, try to:

  • Stay with the experience for a breath or two or longer
  • Feel it in your body
  • Focus on what's enjoyable or meaningful about it

With practice, you can build a stronger and more compassionate mind.

There’s a famous saying in brain science: Neurons that fire together, wire together. The longer and more intensely they fire together, the more they’ll tend to wire together. This means that you can weave psychological resources such as grit, gratitude, compassion, and confidence into the fabric of your own nervous system many times a day.

As the proverb puts it: If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. Each day, we have many opportunities to take in the good that is authentically available in the next minute—minute after minute after minute—and hardwire it into ourselves. At a time when so many people feel understandably helpless in the face of large and unnerving social forces, simply knowing that you do indeed have this power is itself a corrective to the brain’s negativity bias. And it’s a wonderful tool for growing resilient well-being.

Looking for more brain tips? Here are an integrative psychiatrist's best tips for improving focus, productivity, and mental clarity.

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