Do you sometimes wonder why out of all the things that happen on any given day we tend to fixate on the negative ones, like a negative remark from our boss? If you get frustrated by your negative tendencies and are secretly jealous of the positive people in the world who seem to always be able to make lemonade out of lemons, do not despair. For our survival, our brain has indeed evolved with a negative default position, called the “Negative Bias.” However, once we understand the inner workings and reasons for our brain’s negative bias, we can work with our brain and harness its power to intercept the unnecessary fear, worry, and anxiety that the negative bias causes and improve our personal and professional life experiences.
What is Negative Bias?
Negative bias is simply a term describing our brain’s tendency to over-estimate threats and under-estimate rewards as a byproduct of our nervous system’s evolution to aid our survival. Our brain’s primary job is to scan the environment for threats and orchestrate our body’s response to do what it has to do to keep us alive. If you can, imagine taking a walk on a nature trail and hearing a rattling sound along your path. Within milliseconds your brain will get notified through your sense of hearing, and immediately check in for any past associations of that sound with a threat. If it finds one, it will then trigger your amygdala (your brain’s fear circuitry), which will in term elicit your stress response to re-direct your energy from essential functions to your large muscle groups so that you can flee from the “imminent threat” ahead. The end result is that your brain’s inner workings will make you run away from where you heard the rattling sound. If our brains were not so effective in responding to signals picked up from the environment, you and I would just keep walking toward the direction of the rattling sound and probably get bitten by a rattlesnake.
Now multiply this experience by 600 million years, during times in the history of our species when the conditions were harsh, and perhaps you can appreciate why our brain is such a pessimist. We did not inherit the genes of ancestors who were enjoying a moment to smell the flowers: Those ancestors got devoured by predators!
The problem with our brain’s negative bias
Once upon a time, our environment presented many threats to our survival. However, that is not the case today. The trouble with our brain’s “stone age” evolutionary propensity to tilt to the negative way of looking at things, inadvertently leads to an activation of our fight or flight response more times than what we are physiologically designed to handle. In fact, we know that when we operate under our stress-response-activation, essential functions, like our immune function, malfunction. We become temporarily compromised—physically, emotionally, perceptually, and cognitively.
We definitely need our brain to continue to assume the worst when we hear suspicious sounds while hiking in Yosemite National Forest. On the other hand, there are things we can incorporate into our day-to-day life to train our brain to become better at focusing on positive experiences to correct for the perceived threat false alarms.
The key to building a happier brain, and thus a happier life, is to give our brain experiences that will help it bounce back from an alarmed state to a calm state, where we regain access to the optimal functioning of our body systems and the executive functioning part of our brain. This executive part of our brain is involved with memory, learning, mediation of rewards, motivation, problem-solving and many more fabulous jobs.
We can build resilience and intercept unnecessary anger, worry, fear, and anxiety so we can return to the optimal state of calmness, joy, and peak performance.
Here are some simple things you can start doing every day to cultivate and grow your brain’s ability to collaborate with you to create the life experience you want.
1. Practice mindfulness meditation.
Far from a mystical practice, all that is required to reap the benefits of one of the best antidotes to negativity is to observe your thoughts and simply recognize worries, anxieties, and fears that are not happening right now and return to your breath.
2. Spend more time with people who nourish and support you and less time with people who are indifferent or negative towards you.
Although indifferent and negative people have their role to play in our lives too, don’t forget the power a parachute gives us when jumping off a plane. We need people who support our cause to weather the storms of life.
3. When things get tough, return your attention to your Breath.
Remember that your breath is the only bodily function that involves both involuntary and voluntary muscles and nerves. By paying attention to your breath and minding its depth and regularity, you can impact your heart rate and calm yourself down.
4. Instead of waiting, proactively ask for feedback.
Why wait for someone to express what we could have done better? Why not ask what it is that we should start, stop, or continue doing today?
5. Be kind to others.
Love and kindness spread in ripples and they have superpowers in diminishing threat-related responses of our evolved nervous system. Being love is the best way to experience love.
6. Be kind to yourself.
Not just in words, but in actions, forgive yourself for past mistakes, eliminate negative self-talk, and stand up for yourself when anyone treats you in an unkind way.
7. Make time to do things that nourish your spirit and make you come alive.
Walk in nature, paint, sing, dance, make love, take a break, plant an herb garden, volunteer, or do whatever makes you smile. I know time is a limited commodity. But our actions in every minute of every day are what birth our reality, our work, and our relationships.
Throughout our life’s journey, we are guaranteed to face a mix of situations, some of which will be positive and some of which will be negative. Although we have adopted this notion that someday “everything in our life will fall into place” and we will then be able to finally enjoy the moment, we all need to remember: that moment is here now.
By deepening our awareness of our incredible brain’s inner workings and its built-in negativity bias, we can enhance our capacity to deal better with life’s challenges. Since we cannot prevent things from going wrong, what we can do instead is to put systems in place and incorporate tools, resources, and practices to control how adverse events impact us. Understanding the basis and the reasons behind our negative bias gives us the opportunity to use everyday experiences as a catalyst to retrain our brain to collaborate with us to change our life for the better. By purposefully incorporating practices that allow our nervous system to quickly return to baseline no matter what happens on the outside that causes it to get hi-jacked through our brain’s tendency to assume the worst, we are actually retraining our brain to be happier.
Because after all, how we handle negative situations whether they are perceived or real threats is one of our most profound opportunities to not just learn who we truly are at our core, but also who we can potentially be.
For regular inspiration, awareness, and practices that can teach you how to stay calm and balanced for the greatest health, happiness, and effectiveness regardless of your life situations, I invite you to join my community. http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen. I would be honored to be your guide in re-acquainting you with your best self and helping you go from where you are to where you want to be.