Your brain has a natural negativity bias, which means it’s always on the lookout for anything bad: potential dangers or losses. This vigilance helped our ancestors survive because more reactive, nervous, and clingy animals had better chances of passing on their genes.
This negative hair-trigger still exists and can activate when we get stuck in traffic, rush to meet a work deadline, argue with our partner, juggle taking care of the kids while fixing dinner and talking on the phone, or read the headlines. So our brains’ negativity bias mostly leaves us anxious, stressed, and worried today.
When the slightest potential for trouble arises or the smallest thing goes wrong, your brain zeroes in on that one thing downplaying everything else. If you get a glowing performance review from your boss, you’ll focus on those few constructive criticisms. Even though a first date goes well, you’ll replay spilling your water at dinner over and over.
Your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive. We recognize angry faces more quickly. We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We over-learn from bad experiences and under-learn from good ones. In your brain, bad overpowers good every time. These negative experiences snowball making you more sensitive to the negative, and your brain becomes more easily alarmed and reactive.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson writes, “One way or another, negative mental states can easily become negative neural traits.” He continues:
…[F]eeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious cycle.
The negativity bias affects the physical structure-building processes of your brain as negative experiences get stored in implicit memory. Implicit memory is below conscious awareness and the basis for how you feel and function. The contents of implicit memory have much more impact on your life than explicit memory, which is declarative knowledge and personal recollections.
Unless a positive experience is highly novel or intense, most good news has little lasting effect on the brain. Hanson writes, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Even though the negativity bias is great for ensuring survival, it’s lousy at promoting happiness, peace, fulfilling relationships, and long-term physical and mental health.
OK. So your brain is tilted against living happily ever after. But, don’t despair. You can put the odds back in your favor. How? The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to intentionally “take in the good.” Hanson gives detailed instructions on how to do this in his book. (Read more here, Look For The Good And You’ll Find It, and watch for more on this in upcoming blogs.)