What happens when equipment breaks? If you’re like me, it sends you over the edge. Whether it’s the waterer freezing, a drunk driver hitting our fence, the water pump quitting, or the furnace I once had to fix in a blizzard — I immediately get negative because I’m scared of what can happen and know my mechanical skills are a huge weakness. Come to find out, there’s a reason my thoughts go negative (besides my impatience).
Negativity bias. A condition few know about, but we all have. Consider how our ancestors lived in danger: They knew a lion had an impact on their survival while a beautiful sunset did not. Our brains developed to pay attention to the negative things (the lion in this case) for our own protection while looking past the more positive things.
In other words, our brains developed this negativity bias to keep us safe by giving us enough caution to monitor and watch threats. The result is negative events or possible threats have a greater impact on our psychological well-being than positive things. Neuroscience even shows there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli.
Why? Studies repeatedly show our brains misinterpret information in a way that sees more threats and issues than what are really there. This negativity bias is a biological function that served a historical purpose in helping humans survive, but these days, it hurts happiness and wellness. It can cause you to dwell on dark thoughts, hurt your relationships, and make it difficult to maintain an optimistic outlook.
That condemning remark from a co-worker or classmate? You’re far more likely to stew on it longer than the three compliments you heard the same day. Likewise, I remember a mistake we made with one heifer far longer than successes. Farming is fraught with the chance to beat ourselves up.
The good news is that positivity and negativity are habits; you can train your mind to think of the good. If you constantly think of the negative, that is what your brain will go to as its normal. But if you look for the positive daily, you’ll be able to overcome your negativity bias more easily.
A scientist friend, who is also president of her church ladies group, provided a great example of this. Because of her work training, she decided to ask the ladies what their most positive experience since the group’s last meeting was, as well as what they’re grateful for. She sometimes must pry positives out of a few of the ladies who are in the habit of being negative.
Recently one lady’s positive was, “Well, at least I haven’t got the COVID,” and then rattles off that everyone has it. The group leader knew she went to Utah with her sister to visit another sister that they had not seen in 20 years. She looked surprised when asked, “Didn’t you just have a big trip to Utah with your sisters?” She then launched into what a great time she had.
My friend also said, “Others had told me that she was primed to complain about the food at our recent dinner, so she had a negativity bias before the meeting even started. By refocusing to the positive, we tempered that discussion later. It’s also an example of how negativity bias can block out positive experiences.”
What can you do to overcome negativity bias? Psychologists recommend a variety of ways to fight the tendency toward negative thinking.
- Stop the negative self-talk. Pay attention to what thoughts go through your mind For me, I’ll never lost the fear of not being able to take care of mechanical problems – but I do know how to turn to people – like texting the HVAC guy pictures so that I could fix the furnace during the blizzard (we’ll not mention the swear words involved when I dropped the metal door on my foot).
- Reframe the situation. How do you talk to yourself? It’s huge in how you interpret events. A foster mom recently said she looks past hurtful comments and behavior, rather than assuming the worst. “I learned it’s usually a them problem and not a me problem, and unless they are willing to bring up some issue or concern to me as a friend, it’s not worth my energy.” Today people are experiencing A LOT of unseen problems — I try to exercise grace by reminding myself I don’t know their whole story.
- Establish new patterns. Meditation, journaling, and thought exercises all have been proven to help your mental models. Listen to upbeat music, read a good book, or exercise — whatever works for you. This isn’t a made-up issue; negativity bias is a biological function that is clearly impacting mental well-being. And a walk to the back 40 may be just what you need.
- Work on mental restructuring. Change the way you look at life. Thomas Edison had his workshop burn to the ground, but managed to invite his family and friends to enjoy the show of a fire like they’d never seen. Moving on is critical — sometimes that means walking away, other times reframing your perspective.
- Savor the positive moments. That perfect cup of coffee, the sunrise in the rural solitude, cattle grazing on pasture, a walk on the beach, making memories with friends, watching your kids find their groove, that special trip, a moment with a loved one … celebrate the joy. Take a couple minutes to focus on those wonderful moments, replay them in your memory, and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes. Keep them stored away for when the world gets ugly.
Steve Maraboli sums it up well: “Fuel yourself with positivity and let that propel you into positive actions.”
Michele Payn speaks and writes to help the people of agriculture have tough conversations about managing stress, connecting with consumers, and making sense of science. Learn more about her stress management journal at causematters.com or follow @mpaynspeaker on social media.