Hey, how are your resolutions coming? Mine are going great. I’ve lost four pounds and gone eleven days without sugar. I’m satisfied eating carrots instead of candy, with none of the cravings I was expecting.
But despite my good work and progress, I keep obsessing over things that aren’t going so well. I’m plagued by negative thoughts and fear that I will collapse back into my old bad habits.
Why would I think this? Things are going great. No reason to think I’m going to fail. But deep inside I do.
Do you ever do this? You have lots of good things happening in your life, but you focus on the few negative things instead?
This happens to a lot of us. But not because we’re bitter, weak, or pessimistic. It happens because we’re human.
A Survival Mechanism
We’re actually wired to respond this way, and for good reason. In the early days of man, when survival was dependent on constant vigilance and readiness for fight or flight, it kept our species going.
But as civilization evolved, this little nugget planted in our brains didn’t. At least not fully. Though we don’t need to fend off predators from the mouths of our caves anymore, we still default to focusing on the negative far more than the positive.
Our brains actually give far more weight to the negative things than the positive ones. This explains why we end up unhappy when one thing goes wrong, even when five things go right.
Seems I Have A Case Of Negativity Bias
Social scientists call this Negativity Bias. We automatically hold onto or fear negative events far more than we savor and look forward to positive ones.
In my case, the great work and positive results I’ve achieved aren’t enough to keep me from obsessing over my few failures. The net result is that I feel disappointed in myself and unhappy.
Reminds me of a bride I once knew. She had a spectacular wedding followed by an amazing formal dinner reception. She looked fabulous in her dress, and all her friends and family were there to celebrate. Everybody was impressed and we all had a great time.
But a few unruly kids pilfered some of the table settings. And when the bride found out, she collapsed in a heap and declared that her wedding was ruined. I couldn’t believe her reaction, I mean who cares about some table decorations? The event was spectacular!
But it’s the same thing I’m doing to myself right now. I’m letting the few negatives far outweigh the many positives.
Stick vs. Carrot
The fear of a negative outcome, the Stick, motivates us more than the attraction of the positive outcome, the Carrot. In simple terms, most people are too afraid of the bees to go after the honey.
Manic Impressives tend to chase the Carrots more than most people. We’re natural risk takers. But even we become risk-adverse when we allow the Sticks to dominate our thinking. It’s a very human trait.
3 Things You Can Do About It
Knowing about this is one thing. Taming it is another. It will take some conscious effort to overcome your Negativity Bias. But here are a few simple tips.
Call It Out
The moment you notice your brain is skewing your view, call it out to yourself. Hey, Negativity Bias in the house! Smack it around a little. Use a little sarcasm if you must. But consciously call your attention to the inaccurate assessment of events in your brain.
Put Your Thumb On The Scale
Like a crooked butcher, you need to add some weight to the positive events. Since your brain will automatically overestimate the effects of the negative, your job is to even the scales. Remind yourself how awesome the good things are and talk it up a bit.
Focus On The Carrots
Forget the punishment. Focus on the reward. In every situation, think of how glorious it would be to win. When your brain starts to whine about the pain of losing, smack it with a stick.
It takes some discipline. But if we rewind whenever we hear Negativity Bias and replay a more balanced, positive assessment, we will be far happier no matter our circumstances.
And let’s face it – fearing or obsessing over negative things never moves us forward. It keeps us stuck, fearful, and prevents us from living lives as our best selves.
Screw the Sticks! Chase those Carrots!