Research has revealed that we are most likely to flourish when we have at least three positive experiences for every negative (for people with mental illness, this ratio may be higher). However, our brains are wired to focus more on the negative aspects of our lives – the red lights, the rude comments – than the positive. This can make it difficult to achieve the optimal 3:1 ratio, but it’s not impossible. A good place to start is by finding ways to decrease the negativity you experience. Here are a few tips that can help:
1. Dispute Negative Beliefs
We need some negativity in our lives; it keeps us grounded and is part of being human. To be beneficial, it needs to be appropriate – that is, specific and correctable – such as guilt that motivates us to correct a mistake or conflict that leads to an important change in perspective. All too often, inappropriate negativity drags us into a downward spiral. These spirals happen when negative emotions and thoughts feed on each other until we can’t see the situation or ourselves clearly and are weighed down in unhelpful emotions such as despair and shame.To interrupt this pattern, it is helpful to practice disputation – that is, stepping back to look at all the facts of a situation and see it more realistically. Consider effort, intentions, progress, and possibilities for improvement and success. Be a fair judge that takes into account all of the evidence, not just the mind’s negatively distorted interpretation of a setback or mistake. This isn’t about suppressing negative thoughts but dissolving them with a realistic lens and being able to make something good out of a challenge.
2. Interrupt Rumination
We may all sometimes get trapped in rumination, which is when we can’t seem to stop examining worries, concerns, and questions from every possible negative angle. To escape rumination, you need to be aware of when it’s happening and then engage in a healthy distraction such as exercise or reading. Be careful that your distraction isn’t harmful and doesn’t become just a way to numb unpleasantness – its job is to break the cycle of rumination, so you can approach challenges with a clearer mind and experience more positivity.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This kind of awareness can help you take a mental and emotional step back, allow yourself to fully experience the present, and recognize your thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Mindfulness is a skill that can be cultivated through the practice of mindful movement (e.g. stretching), formal or informal meditation, meditation, and focusing on one task or idea at a time. It may be helpful to have guided meditations such as those found at Berkeley’s Mindfulness articles.
4. Diffuse Negativity Land Mines
Important perspective can come from “zooming in” on a particular day to recognize specific sources of harmful negativity, or considering which parts of your normal daily routine can be seen as “land mines.” These can be avoidable – such as a depressing movie or overreacting in anger – or alterable, at least in part. For example, you might practice mindfulness during a task that usually fuels anxiety. Try to have emotional distance between you and these negativity triggers when you’re examining them; it may be helpful to use other negativity-decreasing tools first so you can be in a neutral or positive emotional state when you’re assessing your life.
5. Assess Your Media Diet
Consuming media can lead to an overdose of all kinds of negativity if we’re not careful, resulting in skewed beliefs of what’s “normal”, real, and acceptable; harmful feelings such as shame or depression; and reduced enjoyment in daily living. Take an honest look at the media you “eat” and consider: What is it telling you about violence, race, sexuality, and body image? How does it make you feel about yourself? It may be helpful to “trim” some of the unnecessary negativity we take in through movies, the nightly news, social media, etc., not only by reducing time spent on media but changing the kind of media we choose to take in. For example, getting news online rather than TV allows you to sort through headlines and consume only the articles and videos you want to.
6. Negativity and Other People
When talking about others, highlight the positive rather than flaws or mishaps, and substitute light humor for sarcasm or making fun at another person’s expense. If you are around someone who brings needless negativity, you can: (1) Modify the situation by becoming aware of how you might add fuel to the negativity; working together on tasks that inspire both of you; or lighten the scene with compassion, hope, or humor. (2) Look for positive traits in the person you can appreciate. (3) Mentally reframe the situation and practice mindfulness, looking for opportunities to grow rather than adding more negativity.
Positivity has been found to have remarkable power to help us in every area of our lives – from physical health to relationships – and most of us probably don’t have enough of it. Although some negativity is natural and even needed, we can begin to invite more positivity into our lives by recognizing influences that drag us down in unhealthy spirals of negative thoughts and emotions and then acting to loosen their hold on our minds, relationships, and daily patterns of living.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.