Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:
Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.
That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.
It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.
The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work
This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.
Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.
Count Your Yesses
You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.
Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.
That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.
It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.
Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans
The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.
If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.
Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses.
Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.
Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.