Negativity Bias: how to turn a state into a trait.

If the mind is tranquil and occupied with positive thoughts, the body will not easily fall pray to disease.
— Dalai Lama

As a holistic practitioner, I’m always on a quest to learn more about the human experience and the connection between body, mind, spirit and emotions. Ways to learn include workshops, books, continuous education… and of course, real life. Currently, I’m learning to become more aware of my thoughts in a mindfulness class with Dr. Tara Brach & Jack Cornfield. Our daily practice includes breathing deeply, expanding our perceptions and cultivating compassion. Very cool.

However, in every day life, I’m aware how quickly and easily thoughts get hi-jacked when I’m not paying attention. Not cool. This awareness business is not for the faint hearted! It’s a constant practice of pausing, coming back to the breath and staying curious with a beginner’s mind. Conclusions, expectations and critical thoughts cause pain and suffering. So, what makes our brains focus more on the negative than the positive? One answer is negativity bias.

So what is Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias is a phenomenon, or notion that negative experiences tend to exert greater psychological impact than positive ones. A moment of anger (while driving for example) is more disruptive to one’s day than an equal moment of happiness. Yikes. Here’s a few examples of negativity bias that you may relate to:

  • receiving positive feedback on something you’ve done(work performance, social media, school assignment etc) yet fixating on one or two criticisms

  • focusing on perceived negative message in a heated discussion and spending time angry- even if outcome ended up favorable

  • expecting “something bad” when a supervisor, or partner, needs to “talk to you” and imagining the worst possible outcome

Is there anything we can do to shift this? Yes! Have you heard the saying “neurons that fire, wire together?” It’s how the pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced by repetition. So, mind your mind! What you practice will grow. Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist, psychologist and author explains the purpose of negativity bias (it’s product of evolution) and how to overcome it in this short Ted Talk .

Turning a state into a trait

With awareness and practice, we can hardwire our brains to work for us. In other words, master our minds and not let our mind master us. The steps to turning a state into a trait as described by Dr. Hanson is similar to Dr. Brach’s mindfulness teachings :

  • Have the experience, stay with it. Breathe into it.

  • Feel it in your body, enrich the experience.

  • Focus on what’s rewarding about the experience, absorb it with awareness and compassion

  • Link the positive with the negative experience (this takes practice)

In essence, we can take any experience, or state, and make it part of our inner resources, or traits, for emotional growth and personal development. While I don’t believe in suppressing, or denying, bad days, negative thoughts, feelings or experiences…I do firmly believe in accepting, allowing and feeling ALL our emotions in order to have a whole human experience. The key is not staying stuck in either place. Just observe, breathe and allow…and remember, impermanence: this too shall pass.

To Wholeness…Cheers!