Stop me if you’ve heard this one: You finally manage to schedule dinner with a group of friends that you never get to see. The food is delicious and the service great — even during an awkward moment when you order your meal and loudly mispronounce the dish. (Coq au vin is a cruel mistress.) The embarrassing exchange happens in less than 15 seconds, but when you think back on it a few days later, you still cringe.
What gives? Overall, the dinner was fantastic and your faux pas was a momentary blip. Why does the one small part of a highly enjoyable, two-hour event get prime billing in your memory reel?
The spell of negative thinking
This all-too-familiar phenomenon is called the “negativity bias” and it’s pretty much universal. Our brains are hardwired to prioritize bad, difficult, or painful thoughts over positive ones.
Making matters worse, negative events quickly lodge themselves in our long-term memories, whereas happy memories require dedicated thought — twelve seconds or more, according to Inc. — just to have a shot at landing in your memory bank for the long haul.
“Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense… positive ones,” explains Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. In psychological tests, Hanson’s subjects were able to identify angry faces faster than happy ones, even before their minds could consciously identify emotions.
From an evolutionary standpoint, our predisposition to Debbie Downer-ism makes sense. Ancient humans lacked reliable sources of food, water, and shelter, and, as a result, made life-or-death decisions more frequently than we do today.
“To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources,” Hanson adds. “This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”
The path to staying positive
For those of us hoping to surpass ancient man, there are a number of ways to stay positive — and productive — in the face of naturally occurring negativity.
- Practice “realistic optimism.” If you’re faced with a difficult assignment or complicated interpersonal issue, carefully consider all the facts and then focus on the best possible outcome. The idea is not to ignore pain points or potential challenges; instead, you acknowledge them and remain hopeful and committed to your goal.
Researcher Mario Losada found that, among 60-plus professional teams, the highest-performing groups were those making the most positive comments to one another. He called it “the liberating and creative power of positivity.” Instead of being blindsided by challenges, realistic optimists take them into account and charge ahead towards success.
- Make lists. When anxious or negative thoughts are keeping you from getting work done, set a timer on your phone and take a two-minute break to list everything you’re grateful for at that moment. Items can range from “good wifi” to “my loving partner” to “this delicious cold brew” or anything else, big or small; what matters is that you draw attention to all that is good in your present. Once your alarm sounds, you can return to work relaxed and re-energized.
The New York Times writer Tony Schwartz tried this strategy in a 2013 column and wrote, “I got on a roll, and after just a couple of minutes, I was not only feeling remarkably better, but also far more able to concentrate on the task at hand.”
Stop negative thinking in its tracks
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- Distract yourself. A few years ago, I fostered a very adorable, remarkably high-strung dog named Mickey. His separation anxiety was such that he would wail for hours when left alone in my apartment, which broke my heart and tested the patience of my neighbors. Several dog trainers suggested the peanut butter trick: When I headed out to work in the morning, I would leave a dish with a thin schmear of peanut butter near the door. Mickey would run to the door to protest my exit, start eating the peanut butter, and completely forget what he was upset about by the time the dish was clean.
Most humans have longer memories and more complex emotions than sweet Mickey, but our anxieties benefit from a similar strategy.
Shankar Vedantam, a science reporter for NPR and Harvard University Nieman fellow, found that people alleviated negative emotions when they engaged in mental exercises such as reciting poetry, multiplying double-digit figures, or counting backwards from 100 in increments of seven.
“When you focus your brain on something challenging,” Vedantam wrote, “mental resources that were being previously devoted to producing and experiencing the negative emotion are now being pulled away to solve the puzzle or remember the poem. This is why you experience less of the emotion.”
Dietary preferences notwithstanding, fixing yourself a peanut butter sandwich probably works too.