I was really keen to cover the topic of negativity and specifically our brain’s negativity bias on the podcast because there are so many unhelpful articles out in the world that enter #positivevibesonly territory.
I believe it’s more helpful for us to raise our awareness and understand what the negativity bias is, how we can tilt the balance and what we can do when negativity shows up instead of just shut it down. And this is exactly what I’m discussing in this episode.
There are some references to studies here, so do check out the links below for more information. I hope you find it interesting, let me know your thoughts over on Instagram using #seedlingpodcast.
You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or listen here.
LINKS AND FURTHER READING:
- Information on John Cacioppo study on negativity bias and the importance of small frequent acts of happiness
- How to make every day more lovely
- 10 ways to find calm in your day
- The neuroscience of why gratitude makes us healthier
- The problem with positivity
- Coaching services
So in today’s episode we’re going to be talking about negativity and especially the brain’s negativity bias, which we all have. I want to talk about why it is our brains focus on the shit and gloss over the gold and what we can do to tilt the balance. But I also want to touch on this idea of toxic positivity and the fact that just thinking good vibes only is not always the answer. So relax, get comfortable, and let’s get on with the show.
Hello everyone and welcome back to the podcast! I hope you’re all doing well. So I want to get into the topic of negativity today because I see a lot of articles out there talking about how we can think positively and override the brain’s negativity bias, but often these articles can go down the route of #positivevibesonly and that just doesn’t sit very well with me because I believe it’s good for us to acknowledge negativity in our lives and I think that if we’re trying to constantly push it away, it can actually be quite harmful for us.
But instead what I think is really helpful for us to understand is what the negativity bias is, how it works, why we have it, and then a few things that you can do to tilt the balance if you feel you need to.
So let’s start with talking about what the negativity bias is. So if you’ve never heard of this before, essentially, our brains are built to be more sensitive to the negative, such as criticisms, or a bad event that’s happened to us. So an example of this could be if you are going into a review with your manager at work, they give you an absolutely glowing review, they’ve been giving you loads of compliments, you’ve done amazingly the last few months, but at the end they end they give you one critique, so one thing you can work on. If you leave that review, chances are your brain is going to focus in on the one critique and quite quickly forget about all the other positive things that were said to you.
I know I can definitely relate to this and I’m sure other people can as well! Another example might be if you write your own newsletter and you send it out week after week and you always get really positive feedback. People will email you back, saying how much they love it, but, one week, for whatever reason, a couple of people decide to unsubscribe. Your brain is going to focus in on those unsubscribes and quickly forget all of the lovely things that have been said to you in the past.
And what’s interesting is that this has actually been proven in a study. So I found some information about a study by a man called John Cacioppo and I’m sorry if I’m mispronouncing your name, John! But what he did was he showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings, such as a picture of a Ferrari or a pizza. Now, I don’t really understand – I wouldn’t get that excited about a Ferrari, but pizza I would 100% be excited about! And then he showed people pictures that were known to stir negative feelings, such as dead animals. And then, finally, he would show images known to produce neutral images such as a plate or a hairdryer.
And whilst he was doing this, he was recording electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex. And what happens in that whenever there’s a big electrical surge, that means that the brain is processing information and taking things in. And what he found was that the brain did indeed react a lot more strongly to the negative stimuli. So when they saw a negative picture, electrical activity surged and it meant that the brain was processing that information more.
And the reason our brains do this is that it’s a way of trying to protect ourselves and keep us out of harm’s way. So past-us, so when we were cavemen, we relied on this happening in our brains. When everything around us was trying to kill us, our brain would tell us when a negative experience happened that this was important, that we needed to remember it, so that we would avoid it the next day.
So you can understand where this has come from and why we now have it. And when it now comes to tilting that balance and coming more to a place of neutrality or positive even, what researchers have found is that it’s actually the frequency of small positive acts that matter the most in a ratio of about 5:1. So I imagine what that means is that for every one negative thing that happens to kind of counteract it, you need 5 positive things to happen.
I know that sounds like quite a lot but it’s the small positive acts that matter. And apparently the occasional big positive experiences we have, for example, a birthday party, going to a theme park, something like that, is very nice, but apparently one of those doesn’t make the necessary impact on our brains to override the tilt to negativity.
So what this means is that we don’t need to fill our days with absolutely high moments all the time. We don’t need to feel joy all the time. But instead try and focus on cultivating smaller positive moments throughout our day. And I think we can do this by using mindfulness and just noticing the small moments of happiness that happen every day. Because I think there are a lot of things that do happen that we just don’t notice! So, for example, having that first sip of coffee in the morning, feeling the sun on your skin on your lunch break, getting lost in a good book. All of these are really really happy moments, but often we just won’t focus in on them as much and we won’t remember them.
So, for me, it’s really about making space to notice and appreciate those moments more. Something that can really help with that is documenting it. So this could be through a journal. I know a lot of people say that gratitude journal is a great way to go with this because you can note down all of the things that you’re grateful for and it just, I guess it gets your brain into the habit of remembering the good things.
And that is something I do every day, I’ll write one thing I’m grateful for. Even if it’s been a really shit day, there’s always something that you can find to be grateful for.
And, for me as well, another way of documenting is actually Instagram Stories. And I know that’s probably a little bit of a random one, but I find it’s helpful for me to capture the moments that I wouldn’t necessarily think about otherwise. So one thing I do every Friday morning is I do a little video of me pouring milk in my coffee and I play a song in the background, usually something really relaxing. And I tell you what, the amount of people that have messaged me and said how calming they find it, just to see the milk swirl with the coffee, the relaxing music overhead, it’s just, yeah. It’s a really simple thing but it seems to really resonate with people and it’s something of a ritual now, for me. Even if I wasn’t recording it on Instagram Stories, I think I would just take an extra moment every morning just to see that little swirl of milk and coffee and really enjoy it.
And yeah, I just think Stories can be a nice way of capturing the everyday moments that might not seem that incredible at the time, but then, when you look back on it, actually is pretty nice. And I know they only last 24 hours, but what I do sometimes is, if I’ve had a really nice day, if I’ve had a day out or something and I really love the Story, I just save it. There’s always the option to save it and then you can look back at it another time.
And another thing that I do is to take screenshots of when I’ve gotten really nice feedback or really lovely comments, messages. Just so that I have some images to flick through whenever my mind really wants to cling on the negative, I can go back and really refresh my mind on the positive things that have happened.
So those are just a couple of ways that our brains that really tune into the positives more.
But the negatives are still important! If we smother negativity with fake smiles and rainbows, what happens is that it can build up and come out in other ways. And also, I think that if you have a mental health condition, something like depression, being told to just ‘focus on the positives’ is kind of patronising and it puts you under a huge amount of pressure to always be okay and to feel joyful all the time. And that’s just not realistic!
So instead of trying to drown out negativity, I think what we need to do is show ourselves some compassion when it does come up. Allow yourself to feel the feelings and maybe even get a little bit curious about it. So maybe ask yourself, why am I feeling this way? Why has that critique hit me so hard? Try and dig into it a little bit and understand why it’s happening and that can really help you to move past it.
And once you’ve done that, so once you have dug into it a little bit and you understand it more, treat yourself to a moment of contentment. So whatever this looks like – it could be going out and getting yourself your favourite coffee, it could be going out and just feeling the wind on your skin and going out in nature – anything that you know brings you that little sense of happiness and contentment. Go out and treat yourself to it when you’re feeling low!
I hope this was helpful. I really hope the information about the studies and the research was interesting. I’ll definitely make sure to link that in the shownotes if you wanna read more about it. Yeah, I think just understanding why it is our brains do it can really help you acknowledge it when it is happening and help you feel a little bit more compassionate towards yourself. It’s a perfectly human and natural thing and there are little tricks you can do to tilt the balance the other way.
But yeah, I’ll be back here again next week so I look forward to speaking to you then! I hope you have a very content week ahead.