Research Paper By Josh Paulsen
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Take a moment to close your eyes and think of five highly emotional events that have helped to shape your life. When was it? Where were you? Who was there and what happened? If you are like most people, you can recall more negative events than positive ones. In fact, Finkenauer and Rime (1998) found that while both positive and negative memories were reported, the subjects in their two studies reported more negative events by a four to one margin. Any negative event that occurs in our lives, whether it is an everyday minor event or a major life trauma, is also likely to have a much stronger impact on our perspectives and belief systems than a positive one. Information or events that are negative in nature scream their messages of fear through our consciousness, commanding our attention, while positive information is often a gentle whisper that is easily disregarded. For this reason, negative experiences are far easier to recall with greater vividness than positive ones. As humans, we are also naturally more motivated to avoid pain, or bad experiences, than we are to seek out pleasure or good experiences. In order to achieve our highest potential level of happiness and satisfaction with our lives, it is imperative that we learn actions within our control that we can take to overcome this “negativity bias”.
Why we have a negativity bias and how it affects us
From an evolutionary perspective, it is important to be more attuned to danger, particularly hungry carnivorous animals or other situations that could threaten your life, than to appreciating something positive, such as a beautiful sunset. If you cannot avoid a threat and are killed, there are no second chances. If you miss out on an opportunity for pleasure, you will live to have another opportunity tomorrow. For our cave-dwelling ancestors, survival required urgent attention to the assessment of potentially negative outcomes in any given situation so our human brains evolved with this predisposition to focus on the negative. Although this inclination towards fear-based thinking increases our chance for surviving threats and passing along our genes, it limits our ability to experience the joy and peace that create a truly fulfilling life in the 21st century. Most of us have evolved past dodging our predators in the wild and our negative thoughts are often times simulated situations that have not even occurred, such as worries about a future event that may never even arrive.
Our bias toward negative thinking does not only influence how we act, such as to flee a situation when we perceive a threat, but also how we feel and the emotions we generate in response to the circumstances of our lives. A diary study by David, Green, Martin and Suls (1997) examined the effects of everyday good and bad events on the emotional state of their subjects and found that negative events had more pervasive effects on subsequent mood fluctuations than positive ones. The negative events influenced both good and bad moods, while the good events only influenced good moods. Due to our natural bias, our brains easily shift into negative thinking and once our attention is already focused on that fear, self-pity, hopelessness, or any negative state of mind, it is challenging for us to shift our perception to experience excitement, joy, peace or appreciation for something positive instead. We are even wired and programmed to experience greater distress from losing something than joy from winning the same amount. In one study, most undergraduates refused to stake $10 in a 50/50 coin flip when they stood to win $30, three times their risk of loss (Tversky, 1984). We are far more concerned with protecting ourselves from what could go wrong than we are with pursuing positive outcomes.
Another demonstration of the greater power of negative events vs. positive events is reflected in the concept of trauma. Traumatic events produce severe and long lasting effects on people’s behavior; however, there is no corresponding concept of an incredibly powerful positive event that can have similarly strong and lasting effects. In fact, Brickman and Campbell (1971) postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happens to an individual. Their study showed that the impact of either good events like winning the lottery, or bad events such as the loss of a job, wears off over time. In a follow-up consisting of interviews from three groups of people: lottery winners, accident victims who became paralyzed, and people who experienced no major event, it was confirmed that the effects wore off over time. However, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their new fate. They continued to compare their current situation to how their life used to be, unlike the lottery winners. Brickman called this the “nostalgia effect”. The adjustment period from the negative event occurred much more slowly.
Until recently, the negativity bias was evident in the field of Psychology as well. As recently as 1998, there was a 17:1 ratio of negative to positive focus in psychology research. For every study about happiness or thriving, there were 17 studies on topics of depression and disorder. (Achor, 2010) In our society, most of us are familiar with how to be miserable and depressed, but few know how to thrive and be fulfilled!
The truth about happiness
The commonly held theory on happiness is that, in order to be happy, one must be successful by society’s standards and have the new house, new car, ideal body, and perfect relationship to show for it. We buy into the idea that if we accomplish certain goals, we can finally be happy at some point in the future and end up chasing an illusion instead of focusing on being happy now. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, it actually works the other way around. New research in psychology and neuroscience shows that we become more successful when we are happier and more positive. Our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best, not when functioning with a negative or neutral outlook, but when we have a positive perspective.