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Negativity: Why It’s So Easy Getting Sucked Under and How to Stay Afloat


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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 [1], blinked more frequently while looking at negative words [3] (blinking has been associated with cognitive processing [2]), 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) [4].

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…

  1. When you wake up in the morning and when you lay your head down at night, name one thing that you are thankful for. Thank the universe for a good nights sleep, your cup of coffee, a warm shower, waking up next to your partner, a friend that did something to make you smile, or the kiss goodnight from your child. Being thankful of everyday things we do not often give verbal appreciation for allows us to slow down and acknowledge the good things in our lives.
  2. Smile! That’s correct…smile The act of smiling, even when there is not a purpose, triggers “happy chemicals” in the brain. The muscle memory from smiling for even 30 seconds can change your mood. (it seems silly but try it!)
  3. Meditate for 8 minutes. A well-known meditation called “Loving-Kindness” allows you to relax and reflect first on sending positive thoughts to someone you care for, positive thoughts for someone neutral, positive thoughts for someone you may have tension with, and positive thoughts for yourself. This helps to train your brain to be compassionate even in the midst of disagreement or hostility.
  4. Try to avoid negative people. I know… easier said than done. But take a tally of the individuals you interact with on a daily basis and try to minimize your time spent with them. Additionally, try to be aware of when you are joining in on their pessimism. Analyze why you are doing it. Is it to make the conversation go easier? Is it because they will get angry if you do not join in? Is it because you feel their sentiments? Really be honest as to why your thoughts took a turn for the worst. If possible, listen to their complaints and try to offer some positive comment or alternative point-of-view. If they will take offense to this then just listen and politely end the conversation as soon as possible.
  5. Listen to positive, upbeat music. Songs that give an optimistic message can be uplifting and empowering. Some good suggestions are:
    1. Best Day of My Life- American Authors
    2. Happy- Pharrell Williams
    3. Brave- Sara Bareilles
    4. Hey Hey Hey- Michael Franti
  6. When you are feeling angry, pessimistic or judgmental just take a few deep breathes. Breathing slowly and deeply can bring more oxygen to your brain, allowing your emotion mind to calm down and your rational mind to engage. It allows your body’s reaction response (increased heart rate, racing thoughts, red face, shallow breathing, etc.) time to slow down.
  7. Read news that reports happy, compassionate, and optimistic events instead of filling your brain with stories on crime, war, and destruction. The Good News Network is a wonderful website that allows readers to see the positive contributions that people are making to society. Happy News and Sunny Skyz are two other websites that are worth reading.
  8. Write a “thank you” note to a friend, family member or acquaintance. Maybe try leaving an anonymous sticky note for someone briefly stating something positive about them or their character. Time and time again, research shows that people who brighten other individuals’ days feel better about themselves.
  9. As always, try to stay healthy and active. Eating well and exercising can directly impact mood and general outlook on life. There is a strong mind-body connection. Taking care of your body will help to improve your overall quality of living. Do not underestimate the impact of a quick, five-minute stretch when exercise does not seem possible.
  10. Try to highlight at least one positive in everything. (note: occasionally you may want to do this quietly in your mind because others may get irritated if you seem “overly happy” about everything.) Internal dialogue (or even keeping a small journal of your thoughts) can help to train your brain to focus more on the benefits of something or the optimistic side. Looking on the bright side can decrease stress and make your day a little more enjoyable.

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!


  1. Fiske, Susan T. (1980). “Attention and weight in person perception: The impact of negative and extreme behavior.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38 (6): 889–906. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.38.6.889.
  1. Fogarty, Christine; Stern, John A. (1989). “Eye movements and blinks: Their relationship to higher cognitive processes”. International Journal of Psychophysiology 8 (1): 35–42. doi:10.1016/0167-8760(89)90017-2.
  1. Ohira, Hideki; Winton, Ward M.; Oyama, Makiko (1998). “Effects of stimulus valence on recognition memory and endogenous eyeblinks: Further evidence for positive-negative asymmetry”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24 (9): 986–993. doi:10.1177/0146167298249006.
  1. Pratto, Felicia; Oliver, John P. (1991). “Automatic vigilance: The attention-grabbing power of negative social information”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61 (3): 380–391. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.3.380.

3 comments on “Negativity: Why It’s So Easy Getting Sucked Under and How to Stay Afloat

  1. jncthedc
    April 29, 2015

    Great article. People get caught up in the daily rituals and stresses of life and don’t create enough down time. This imbalance causes people to eventually “explode” resulting in apathetic attitudes over time. You point out a lot of good healthy steps people can do to prevent this outcome. I like your approach.

    Stay healthy and happy.

  2. Pauline Davis
    January 11, 2016

    Really useful information. I need help with this too! I mostly use http://www.altomerge.comto merge my PDFs. I think it also allows you to fill the merged documents.


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