The human mind is a negativity magnet. It’s not a personal character flaw, it’s an evolutionary drive to survive. For survival you need to be on the look out for danger so your mind constantly scans for what could go wrong. This negativity bias stems back to when we were hunters and gatherers. Back when we could be eaten by very large predators or exiled from our tribe for doing something stupid. These were significant threats to our survival. However, in modern times the threat of being eaten is relatively low and we have much greater ability to form interdependent relationships than ever before. But our tendency towards negative thinking can keep us in a cycle of emotional reactivity and disconnection from ourselves and others. So how do you beat the negativity bias?
To counteract the negativity bias these three helpful skills are essential practices:
1. Make soothing yourself the priority
Do you ever notice that when things seem difficult in your life you are more likely to experience conflict or feel disconnected from yourself and others? This is typical in a negative thought, feeling and behaviour cycle. Our thoughts and feelings feed off each other and any behaviour arising from this is going to have a less than optimal outcome. Consider when you have had a bad day and carry that into your interactions with loved ones. Squabbles and disconnection can easily arise in this type of mental environment.
Rather than continuing to think and act on autopilot, intentionally bring yourself into the present and soothe any difficult emotions. If you’ve had a difficult time, give yourself some compassion and gratitude for getting through it. Simply becoming aware of your breathing and intentionally slowing and relaxing the breath can calm you and bring you back to a more centred state. (Or try our 5 minute breath practice to calm emotions and relax the body.) Remind yourself that when you are calm and centred you handle anything life throws at you better. Then consciously park whatever is intruding on your thoughts and disturbing your emotions. You can always return to your worries once you have settled but perhaps you won’t need to.
2. See things from the calm observer stance
Allowing your mind to linger with negativity is like standing up close to a brick wall, in a beautiful garden. All you will see are the bricks right in front of you and nothing of the beauty surrounding the wall. Similarly our mind can just get too immersed in the negative. Cultivating the calm observer stance allows you to zoom out and to see the wider picture. The observer is the part of you that watches everything in your life as it unfolds. The observer is impartial and has clarity as it’s basis. It can see the wall, the garden, the sky and is ok with things just as they are. Try this meditation to familiarize yourself with the observer. With enough practice you can take this awareness into your daily life, acting from a more clear and centred mental space.
3. Deliberately cultivate positive states of mind
We’ve established the mind wallows around in negativity like a pig in mud, but ask yourself, does it do the same for more positive emotions? The common answer is No. While we worry, ruminate and stew on perceived offences, unfair situations and problems we rarely ruminate and stew on all the good things in life. The things we are grateful for, moments of connection, the more expansive and helpful emotions we have felt. The way to balance the mental equation is to intentionally cultivate positive states of mind such as gratitude and compassion. Not fake positivity that denies and suppresses problems, rather a broadening of perspective to equally focus on positive emotions. Yes, things can be tough or unfair but there is usually good somewhere amongst it. Focus on how you handled a difficult situation, or a kindness you were shown, or an admirable quality you noticed in yourself or another. Take those thoughts and feelings and wallow around in them. Then do it some more.
For more deliberate cultivation of positivity, keep an eye out for our upcoming blog on Cultivating Love.