Negativity (And Its Origins)

Too much negativity leads to loss of hope, joy, perspective.
Too much positivity leads to loss of sensitivity, empathy, sympathy.
Just as a battery needs both negative and positive to flow, so too do we.
Here I highlight the origins of negativity, its role in our survival, its effects on us today.


Have you ever wondered why nastiness, thrillers, bad news, potential bad news, negative comments make a bigger impact on us compared to the good stuff?

Do you wonder why you struggle to see the good in you?

The Negative Bias

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The “Negative Bias” is a function in our human brain that evokes greater sensitivity towards unpleasant news. As the name suggests, it results in our being naturally biased towards the negative.

This means we detect threats, potential problems and things that are ‘off’ about ourselves and our environment far quicker than we register the pleasant or neutral stuff. Our amygdala, the region of our brain responsible for survival instincts, uses about two-thirds of its neurons to detect negativity and stores it into long-term memory*.

i.e., Two thirds of our emotions and motivation regulator is designed to focus on threats, problems, the ‘bad’ stuff.

Unfortunately, we do not have an equal opposing “Positive Bias” to help the good stuff stick. This is why good or helpful stuff needs conscious intentional tracking practices, which you’ll find below.

*Source: https://www.miuc.org/brain-love-negativity-negativity-bias/


Origins in Survival

As much as this causes unpleasantness in our lives, without it, we would have gone extinct.

Back when our ancestors were cavemen, being vigilant and looking for potential threats was a matter of life and death. It helped us survive as a species.

As a rule of Mother Nature, when a function heightens one’s chances of survival, it is naturally passed down the genes to ensure the next generation have it. Our Negative Bias ensured we were vigilant enough to fight, flee, and avoid when we needed to keep safe, which is why it sustained as part of our neurological wiring.

Over time (thousands of years), this sensitivity towards negativity stayed, but lifestyles changed. And so it began to spill into our work, relationships, goals, politics, media.

If you or someone you love struggles with chronic stress/anxiety/depression/trauma, you may notice a potentially heightened use of this function. If so, then it could be because the brain has had to pull together extra resources and vigilance somewhere in their history, possibly for a prolonged period. It may have also stored these memories strongly to warn of future occurrences.


Breaking the Cycle: Gratitude & Growth

Gratitude Practice

This is potentially the most powerful practice to counterbalance the brain’s negative bias. Make a list of 3-5 things you found nice, helpful, or worthy each day.

You may find this list growing over time as you include little silly things too 🙂

Gratitude practice isn’t about what we ‘should’ be grateful for, but about what we notice as helpful, pleasant, neutral, sweet, kind, hopeful – anything that brings us value.

This is also an uplifting practice for the darker days. Revisiting our list brings perspective when we are lost.

On a neurological level, this changes our neural pathways. The less our brain flags up threats and problems, the less we feel caught and the more we flow, discovering wider, deeper experiences in ourselves. This truly can change our perspective and quality of life.

Growth Mindset

Sometimes in certain situations, we may not be able to see any form of ‘good’ or ‘positivity’. In such situations, the value is often in the deeper qualities or meaning we draw from the situation.

This sometimes also means taking a birds eye view of the situation, viewing it from a distance, perhaps as an older version of ourselves or as another person.

For example, a sticky, difficult situation may show us strength drawn from unknown resources within ourselves – which we may not have otherwise known of. Or, the pain of a broken relationship may tell us something about cultivating self-love/self-care.

Swapping Words

Try swapping ‘positive’ with ‘helpful’ and ‘negative’ with ‘unhelpful’.

Swapping words in this way changes our association with it and encourages us to explore situations with greater clarity.

“That was a negative situation” automatically stores itself into memory as ‘bad’ i.e. ‘never again’, which can stop us from exploring further.

“That was an unhelpful situation”, on the other hand, makes us question the parts we found unhelpful and learn from it.


Awareness

Negativity and positivity both have its place.
They are often helpful.
They are often unhelpful too.
It’s up to us to balance them using our faculty of non-judgement: Awareness

Negativity helped us survive as a species.
Gratitude & Growth Mindset helps us thrive as individuals.