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Ever find yourself trying to focus your life on being more positive yet notice you are, yet again, complaining to your coworker about how slow the drive-thru line was this morning or critiquing how your chicken dinner last night was tasteless and dry? How about trying to meditate and cultivate compassion while 20 minutes later find you are angry at your partner for calling you to complain about their day? What a jerk for bringing down your good mood right!?!?
So why is it that, in the midst of trying to improve our outlooks and be optimistic, we find ourselves getting sucked right back into talking, thinking, feeling and judging in a negative manner?
Well, the reasons are endless. Sometimes it is easier to connect with others when you can join in on their bash session. (Why not complain about how terrible the newly released documentary was if it helps you to have an easy conversation on your first date?) And why not join in on complaining about how the driver of the car going 25 mph is a rude imbecile and should not be driving? (…all in an attempt to avoid your friend’s frustration soon being misdirected toward you!) It all seems so trivial when looking back and analyzing the reasons for feeding into others’ pessimism.
However, it is indeed difficult to stay positive when everyone around seems to be doing the opposite. I have noticed personally that it seems to be easier for negative people to turn optimists to the dark side than it is for positive people to turn pessimists toward the light. So why is this?
Besides these petty, yet real-life, social reasons for becoming more negative, there was once a biological advantage. The caveman who could detect unsafe situations, mistrust other cavemen, and assess danger in every circumstance was the most likely to survive.
Research demonstrates that humans tend to have a negativity bias. Negativity bias is the idea that positive events have less of an impact on individuals’ emotions, cognitions and behaviors than do negative events. It has been found that positive events, even when of equal value, do not have the same significance as negative events. An example of this can be found in comparing the increase in anxiety as the days get closer to a major operation to the increase in excitement as the days get closer to a big vacation getaway. People tend to feel a greater impact on their psyche due to the anxiety than they do the excitement. Another example is with temperature. People tend to rate undesirable temperatures as having more of an impact on their mood than they do enjoyable temperatures.
In addition to these biases, it has also been noted that people tend to put more judgment on negative personality traits than positive ones. An honest person’s reputation can be diminished just by telling one lie but a dishonest’s persons reputation will hardly change even if they make a transformation and become a mentor for local kids stricken by poverty. A wonderful example I came across to demonstrate this is with political campaigns. Ever notice how they start off with candidates proclaiming what changes they will make while in office but slowly refashion to bashing the other candidates, rattling off a tally of the terrible, illegal, and “Un-American” things they have done in both political and personal arenas? This is because people are less likely to care about the candidate who expresses a positive, progressive agenda than they are to care about the candidate who has exhibited undesirable, and untrustworthy behaviors.
Further research has also indicated that people tend to pay more attention to negative qualities than positive ones. Participants spent longer observing negative pictures than they did positive pictures , blinked more frequently while looking at negative words  (blinking has been associated with cognitive processing ), and took longer to name the font color of a negative word than they did the color of a positive word (which demonstrates more time spent analyzing the negative word) .
SO… “How do I stay positive?” you ask… Despite all of these biological predispositions to negativity there are many things you still have control over. Here is a short list of simple things to try. Many could be done once or twice a day to help re-wire the brain for a more optimistic outlook whereas others may require more long-term effort. You may be thinking “I do not have time to change my brain.”… But on the contrary, even a simple, 20-second adjustment can be beneficial! I challenge you to go ahead and try…
Staying positive and optimistic may feel tiresome, or even impossible, at times. Remember, we are biologically and socially wired to focus on the negative. However, the benefits of rewiring your brain and adjusting your thoughts to be more optimistic are extraordinary, worthwhile and endless!