Even during a pandemic, you can overcome a negativity bias
Aren’t you delighted when things turn out to be easier than expected? Like when you can suddenly see the best way to crush an intimidating project at work, find your way to a new destination even when GPS backfires or figure out how to accurately file a tax return without requiring outside help.
Hey, any of those scenarios makes me want to triumphantly press an imaginary red “easy” button.
Unfortunately, it has also gotten easier to become negative these days. Check out major news sites for a few minutes, and it feels like your head may explode.
After all, there is little joy in hearing about skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts, slower than expected vaccinations, civil unrest, politicians who are seemingly allergic to the truth and more. Experiencing personal loss or prolonged fall-out from recent events just makes it worse, even if you tended to have a more positive outlook in better times.
Dwelling too long in the land of negativity, though, is not doing you any favors. Consistently expecting the worst to happen prevents people from overcoming obstacles and thriving. And even if you’ve been more of a Debbie Downer since childhood, you can gain more authentic positivity now.
Understanding the Negativity Bias
Life Coach and Family Learning expert Susannah Chambers says that most human beings are hardwired to have a negativity bias, which can manifest at a very young age.
“The negativity bias is where we naturally gravitate towards problems, ruminate on unhappy things or perceived being wronged,” Chambers explained. “Research shows that when babies interact with parents, they respond to positive cues. By the age of three months, there’s evidence that infants are already starting to interact differently based on negative cues.”
A propensity to veer negative is a matter of both nature and nurture. Environment, and the people you surround yourself with, is a big factor. “We tend to want to stay as part of a pack or tribe,” added Chambers. “If we’re surrounded by people that gravitate towards that negativity bias, it can be quite difficult to push against it.”
Even if you had strategies in place to counter being negative or becoming depressed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased isolation from social distancing has magnified those tendencies.
“If people are used to having a swim, going shopping or to the cinema, circumstances are different now,” said Chambers. “You are not going very far a field and your sphere of reference is constantly the same physical environment. If your negative thoughts involve those that you’re in close proximity to, there’s no escape from it.”
However, you can reverse escalating levels of personal negativity. Often it starts by actively looking for the positive.
Find the Positives
“What has struck me both in person and on social media was how many people are calling 2020 the worst year ever, focusing on the negative and lamenting all that was lost,” said Nancy Taylor, Chief Education Officer of Taylor Educational Advocacy. “We all need help in managing our stress right now. While I share the sentiment that it has been an unparalleled year of worry and loss, it is essential to take care of ourselves and find positives on which to focus. Positive thoughts lift us up. Being proactive in taking care of ourselves during these most challenging times can help reduce our overall stress and increase our energy and capacity to cope.”
Seeking more positivity can increase psychological well-being, decrease depression, and improve coping skills. Experts at renowned Johns Hopkins Medicine found that a positive attitude can even bolster your physical health. On a website article, they report that “people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”
Before continuing down this road, let’s clarify that I’m talking about gaining more authentic positivity. Not pasting on fake smiles or repressing real feelings instead of dealing with the root of what is bringing you down. With seemingly perfect, well-curated lives, it can feel like social media influencers are trying to push positivity down your throat. Especially if being upbeat is not your natural tendency.
But despite current circumstances, you can break the negativity cycle. Here are 6 ways to become more authentically positive:
You don’t need to attempt a dramatic shift from negative to positive overnight; in fact, trying to make a big change like that all at once can be overwhelming. Instead, consider taking baby steps in becoming more positive. Maybe it’s adding an exercise routine to increase happiness endorphins and boost your well-being, starting at 20 minutes a day and slowly increasing it over time.
Chambers believes that baby steps can have a snowball effect. “Just choose something, however tiny it might seem,” she advised. “You might fail, and it might not work for you. But if that step aligns with who you are, then it can be repeatable and becomes a habit. The repeated reinforcement of a positive mindset can transform a person’s outlook on life.”
Taylor recommends that clients develop their positivity muscles by engaging in cognitive reframing, the process of looking at the world from a different perspective to allow you to consider multiple perspectives.
“As an example, rainy days get me down, and I feel the gray deeply and uncomfortably. When I start thinking that I don’t like rainy days, I stop and say to myself that gray days are necessary for us to have plants that grow and water to drink,” she explained.
“In this way, I reframe for myself a negative into a positive. I can mitigate the effects of the negative by finding a positive outcome or experience from it. Cognitive reframing can be done for negative feelings and thoughts we have.”
Reinforce the silver linings.
In reflecting back to the beginning of the pandemic, consider the positive ways in which you may have changed. Has your tolerance for taking risks increased? Perhaps additional family time has made you a better, more considerate parent, spouse, offspring, or sibling.
Make a list of what you have gained from recent times, listing everything that comes to your mind. It can serve as evidence of the personal growth that has taken place, propelling you to a better place moving forward.
Stop the doom-scrolling.
Admit it. In recent times, you fell down the rabbit hole of doom-scrolling. You know, obsessively checking your smart phone for updates on the pandemic, riots, natural disasters, protests and more that sent you in a spiral of despair and negativity. Doom-scrolling has a terrible impact on your well-being but it’s increasingly hard to avoid the siren call of digital devices when it feels like the world has turned sideways.
But a Washington Post article on July 29, 2020 reported that you can actually use technology to combat that bad habit. Writer Sunny Fitzgerald noted tips from experts such as changing your screen display to grayscale to reduce the visual allure, retraining algorithms by clicking on content that covers multiple areas of interest and using an app to limit screen time.
Meditating, journaling and related practices can help you be in the moment, gaining more clarity and perspective. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the UK, Chambers found herself at home 24/7 with her three children. However, she made a concerted effort to teach herself to meditate despite the inevitable interruptions. Today that habit helps her manage stress and become more positive.
Find happiness in the arts.
Taylor says that the broad spectrum of arts and entertainment which makes your heart sing can increase positivity levels now.
“Whether it is watching The Queen’s Gambit, listening to music that lifts your spirits, or reading a poem that makes you think, the arts can get us through tough times,” she noted. “It’s a great time to enjoy the mediums you already appreciate and consider others that can bring you solace.”
I couldn’t agree with her more. Right now, my husband and I have gotten bursts of joy from watching streaming shows like Cobra Kai, Dream Home Makeover and We are the Champions. While they may seem different, each have the common thread of imagining something better — whether it is the path to personal redemption, transforming living spaces or the joy of quirky competition.