One morning, you score tickets to the best show in town, you receive a surprise message from your partner for a romantic rendezvous later that day, and you are told by your boss that you botched your last assignment. Which of these will you fixate on? Thanks to humanity’s negativity bias, most of us will obsess about the last one.
From a physical survival standpoint, tuning in to the negatives in our lives makes perfect sense. After all, we ought to focus on the lion lurking in the bushes nearby instead of the rainbow overhead. However, when we seek out and dwell on the negative, particularly in social interactions, we ramp up our stress and anxiety.
In fact, we can see negativity where there is none. For instance, you’re at a large party and see a colleague across the room. You wave, but the colleague turns away. There could be a dozen reasons for your colleague’s behavior. Negativity bias will push your thinking toward inferring a mean or petty motive for your colleague’s actions that can leave you ruminating over the perceived slight for the remainder of the evening.
While all of us inherit this negativity bias, we can manage and overcome it. Research indicates that we can reshape our brains, a concept known as neuroplasticity. Beyond stimuli from our environment, what we choose to pay attention to can alter our brains, both positively and negatively.
Mindfulness Leads to More Happiness
If we want to avoid dwelling on the worst in life and actually improve our brains, mindfulness offers us a path. One study conducted by the University of California – San Diego showed that students who participated in a mere month of mindful meditation enjoyed substantial reductions in distress and increases in positive moods compared to the control group and the group that learned sleep-relaxation techniques.
Because mindfulness is about being in the present without judging, we can train ourselves to shift our focus from the negativity that bogs us down. Mindfulness is about noticing what’s in the here and now, right in front of us, without heaping our preconceptions, which are often negative, on top of our experiences. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Practicing mindfulness gives us a little distance between ourselves and our thinking so that we have a measure of objectivity about our thinking. This distance can reduce or eliminate our fixations on past negative events.
Try a mindfulness practice for ten minutes per day (instructions below) and see what difference it makes. You may find your distress decreasing and your mood improving. While your days may not be filled with rainbows and kittens, you may find them a little brighter and happier.
Find a quiet place to sit for ten minutes each day. Close your eyes. Sit with your spine straight, away from the back of the chair if possible, and your head upright but your shoulders relaxed.
For the next ten minutes, pay attention to the physical sensations that come and go in your body, particularly sensations in your lower abdomen caused by your breathing, as well as the thoughts and emotions that come and go in your mind, and any sounds that you might hear.
There’s no need to try to make anything happen, to stop anything from happening, or to judge yourself for whatever you are or are not doing.
When you end your practice, tell yourself to bring this nonjudgmental awareness of yourself and your environment into the rest of your day.