“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
After speaking on a panel with another colleague, I was impressed with her leadership. So I sent her an email that said, “You were total dope the way you facilitated our panel today.” She wrote back, “At first when I read your email, I thought it said, ‘You were a total dope the way you facilitated our panel today.’” She told me it was her first experience with that kind of national responsibility and was feeling anxious about it. In other words, her negative mindset distorted my message to fit with the insecurities she felt at the time. Neuroscientists call the baked-in, cunning device that afflicted my colleague the negativity bias—the brain’s built-in alarm system to perceive negativity even when a situation is positive or neutral.
Your Negativity Bias
Think of all the times you brooded for countless hours over one negative aspect of a situation when, in retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. Still, your negativity bias caused you to overlook many positive elements. Your colleagues gave you rave reviews on your presentation, but you couldn’t get that one frowning face in the front row off your mind. The majority of your friends attended your dinner party, but that one no-show couple continued to flash in your brain like a neon Failure sign.
We’re living in hard times with the uncertainty of the Coronavirus. It’s hard to stay positive with such difficult challenges most of us have never faced. Our negativity bias only adds insult to injury because it overestimates threats and underestimates our ability to manage them. The negativity bias plays an important survival role, protecting you from physical danger and less imminent threats such as financial pressures, tight deadlines, health worries, performance anxiety, fear your main squeeze might abandon you . . . the list goes on. It warns and pushes you into action, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, making your life seem full of mostly negative events that put you on edge or make you angry or explosive.
The 3-To-1 Positivity Ratio
Negativity has a longer shelf life than positivity because of nature’s elegant and hard-wired design of your nervous system. Scientists have discovered it takes three positive experiences to offset one negative experience. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, positivity researcher at the University of North Carolina, for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you need to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you. Applying the 3-to-1 ratio, as she calls it, builds a collaborative relationship between your survival mind and your thrive mind. “Positivity doesn’t mean we should follow the axioms Grin and bear it or Don’t worry, be happy,” Fredrickson says. “Those are simply superficial wishes. Positivity runs deeper. It consists of the whole range of positive emotions—from appreciation to love, from amusement to joy, from hope to gratitude, and then some.”
Yet when your negativity is left to its devices, you’re more likely to store a threatening, negative memory than a positive one after just one episode—all in the name of survival. Ask anyone who was alive on November 22, 1963 where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Or on January 22, 1986 the day the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded on live television just after takeoff. Chances are they can recall exactly where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing. I know I can. I’ll bet you remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing on September 11, 2001—that is, assuming you’re old enough to have been born.
But where were you a few days later at the same time? I’d be surprised if you could tell me, because it wasn’t threatening enough to stand out. You’re more likely to recall the time you fell out of the tree and broke your arm than all those times you safely climbed the tree. Or that bad-tasting medicine your mom forced down you. You’re more apt to remember that than her lemon meringue pie. But according to Fredrickson, “The potential for life-draining negativity lies within you, just as does the potential for life-giving positivity. You have more say than you think about which you feel and when. The treasure for your own positivity is waiting.”
10 Ways To Make the 3-to-1 Ratio Build Your Career
There are lots of ways to seek a 3-to-1 positivity ratio in your life. Here are 10 tips on how you can bring more positivity into your life to balance out the negativity bias:
- Rewrite the story your negativity bias tells you. During a period of uncertainty such as the Coronavirus pandemic, be mindful of the story your negativity bias is telling you about the unknown. When dealing with the unknown, fears fill in the blanks with previous history and the innate negativity bias which are rarely true. Changing the narrative prevents your emotions from coloring the facts. When my publisher asked me to record an audio book, my negativity bias warned that it would be grueling. Instead of biting the hook, I looked at the upcoming event in the recording studio as an adventure to have instead of a problem to fix. And it turned out to be a fun experience.
- Look for the opportunity in the difficulty. Few situations are 100% bad. The negativity bias will cause you to automatically focus on the negative side of a situation. Train your mind to flip it around. Focus on solutions instead of problems. Pinpoint the upside of a downside situation. Make an effort to focus on the good news wrapped around bad news. Look for the roses instead of the thorns. “I had to pay more taxes this year than I’ve ever paid” becomes “I made more money this year than I’ve ever made.” And “Many people are going to catch Covid-19” becomes “Many people will contract the virus, and many people will get well, too.”
- Broaden your scope. Once you realize you have a choice of how to perceive and respond to a challenge and that optimism is always present—even under the direst pressures—you can start to focus your mind more on the possible, big-picture aspects of situations and build on them. Broaden-and-build widens the span and boundaries of your mind so you can see more possibilities. In other words, you expand your negativity bias’s constrictive “zoom lens” into a “wide-angle lens,” creating a perspective that enlarges your range of vision.
- Flip Mother Nature’s dictates. Get in the habit of underestimating threats and overestimating your ability to overcome them. When faced with a setback, if you flip your perspective, you’re less likely to develop a negative pattern of defeat. As you learn to accept the life on its terms, instead of forcing the life you want to have, you will scale the obstacles of resistance, lose your cool less often, and find the happiness you’ve been seeking.
- Be chancy. Take small risks in new situations instead of predicting negative outcomes without sticking your neck out. Instead of settling into cozy ruts and routines, try new things, “I don’t know anybody at the party, so I’m not going” becomes “If I go to the party, I might make a new friend.”
- Don’t let one negative event rule your whole life pattern. “I didn’t get the promotion; now I’ll never reach my career goals” becomes “I didn’t get the promotion, but there are many other steps I can take to reach my career goals.” Nothing is permanent, and every situation can be changed for the better.
- Reach out to others. Small gestures during hard times assuage worry and concern. Helping others through a crisis by performing good deeds can make you feel in control—even give you a sense of euphoria. The obvious benefit when you reach out to help someone else is that you get a break from your own worries for a while. Contributing, giving, volunteering, donating and performing kind acts, no matter how small or brief, connect you to other people (and animals) in a deeply meaningful, humane way.
- Practice positive self-talk. After a big letdown, underscore your triumphs and high-five your “tallcomings” instead of bludgeoning yourself with your “shortcomings.” Affirm positive feedback instead of letting it roll over your head.
- Frame a setback as a lesson to learn, not a failure to endure. Ask what you can learn from difficult outcomes and use them as stepping-stones, instead of roadblocks. Think of the situation as happening for you instead of to you.
- Strive to see gains contained in your losses. Every loss contains a gain but you have to look for it. Every time you get up just one more time than you fall, your perseverance increases the likelihood of propelling you up the career ladder. Baseball great Babe Ruth said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up. Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ration That will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press.