Why your brain doesn't want to you to look on the bright side.

This is the third post in my series about cognitive bias and how to manage your messy mind.

If only it was that easy.

We’re often entreated to ‘Look on the bright side’ and ‘Think positively’ when life is treating us poorly. ‘It could be worse…’ we're told. Well yes it could, but that doesn’t make me feel better.

Humans are wired to focus on difficulties and challenges. We see the bad before we see the good. We give more weight to negative experiences than to positive ones. In fact some researchers suggest that we pay up to three times more attention to our ‘negative’ feelings than we do to our positive emotions.

Why are we such sad sacks?

It’s our negativity bias at work.

Our negativity bias is our tendency to see the negative in a situation ahead of the positive. When your brain receives threatening, upsetting or difficult input you get a surge of electrical activity that doesn’t happen with positive information. Your brain is more attentive to the bad stuff in life.


It's survival.

We need to pay attention to the things that threaten our safety. We must be alert to events that may harm. Our brains are wired to protect us in this way.

As clever as this systems is, however, your brain does not distinguish between a vehicle speeding towards you as you cross the road and a snarky comment from a stranger. It will activate a threat response either way.

This is how we can end up tangled in our thoughts and feelings. We notice negative events, we pay attention to them, then we ruminate and worry. Focusing too often and too intently on the negatives in your life creates a spiral of dissatisfaction, and we don't want that do we?

Tips for overcoming your negativity bias.

It is possible with awareness and practice.

  1. When you're worried or upset by something, remind yourself that you can control your thoughts. Don't let them control you.
  2. Look for the positives. Can you re-frame your thoughts in a more positive and helpful way? Could a 'failure' reveal an opportunity? Can you be glad for what you have rather than fixed on what you don't have?
  3. Savour the good in life. You can train your brain to notice the good ahead of the worrisome. It takes practice but it gets easier with time. Look for the good things in your day and savour them. Pay close attention to how they make you feel. Do this as often as you can.

 Interested in knowing more? This article from the Positive Psychology Program has some great tips.

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