It doesn’t take a genius to explain that being happy is much more enjoyable than being miserable but, mirroring how complex the human mind is, true comprehension of happiness is the type of lifelong stuff that we may never fully figure out. Yet the nature of it, at least for me, is so interesting and worthy of study that I naturally feel compelled to learn more- and like the Rock on his “cheat day” from his rigourous diet, I’m hungry.
As you already know, the world can be a pretty negative place.
People that seem to enjoy sucking the energy out of places, internet trolls, and don’t even get me started on the news. Negativity breeds negativity, or so the saying goes, and for some reason or other, it just seems like we’re naturally able to listen easier to that negative voice, feeling, or person, more than the positive stuff.
One of my favourite authors, Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor, explains why we as humans just can’t help but be drawn to the negative stuff sometimes and how it’s just flat out easier to feel negativity than it is to feel happy (or else I’m sure that we all would just choose to be happy).
He basically says that way back in the day, like way, way back in the day, all that negativity was actually super helpful in keeping us alive.
In early human times, the fella that walked around in the sun thinking about how great everything is was much more likely to get devoured by some sort of vicious predator or ignore other signs of danger, like say walking off a waterfall (I don’t know, I wasn’t there- you come up with a better example).
So as a result, those that were able to focus more on all the bad things that could be around them lived more and the others… Died.
This repeated itself over and over until the genes of all those negative people who were pretty good at singing Bee Gee’s songs lived long enough to pass down the habit to their kids and the others either learned quick or didn’t get the chance to even have kids.
When it comes to survival, that stuff makes a lot of sense. But the reality is now that we don’t have any real threats that are hunting us down and trying to kill us each day.
Since we can’t just give the habit back to whoever gave it to us, we as humans have an innate proclivity towards sifting out all those negative messages from the good ones, as those are the ones that can do damage to us.
A huge example of this is the news. Why do they report such negative content all the time? The answer is simply because they’re doing what every business tries to do: give the people what they want, so they can make money from it.
People are just naturally more interested to read or hear about that homicide that happened the other day, or whatever else happened that was horrific in some way. The interest comes from the simple fact that we focus on it more subconsciously because our instincts make us feel like it could possibly threaten us in some way.
It doesn’t look like this type of media is going to change either, after a Russian news site decided to pump out only positivity for a week and lost two-thirds of its readership in one day.
Anyone in charge of anything at a news company will undoubtedly avoid making the same mistake. For myself, I chose to unfollow any news outlet or source of breaking information because I simply realized that internalizing all of that negativity is likely influencing me far more than being ‘in the know’ about the horrors going on.
I also figured that if something was big enough to actually impact me, I would almost certainly hear about it from other people– and I really don’t care if I’m the first to know.
Another idea Achor explains is that to counteract these negative messages it takes a considerable amount of effort.
Since we are predisposed to focus more on bad things, it takes 3 positive messages to counteract 1 negative message.
An example of this could be at work, or school, or wherever you spend the most time. Someone could tell you you’re doing a good job or give you another positive affirmation of some kind, but if the next person told you that you’re useless there, the message from that person who’s probably just taking out some of their own inner turmoil out on you would stick with you for far longer than the person who told you’re doing good work.
We’d wonder what that guy’s deal was and likely begin questioning if he was right or what exactly he was meaning.
The same goes for the rest of the negative messages in the real world. Since we’re just instinctively more concerned about negative things, we grant them way more of our focus than the others.
To balance this, seeking out those messages of positivity can help train our brains to see more of what we’d rather see and not what our instinctive brain thinks we want to see.
Pointing out areas of gratitude is a great way to plug this in- it can really start by taking a minute every day to think about all the things you’re grateful to have and that you’d be upset if you didn’t have.
As we know in this world, anything can change at any minute and that thing you took for granted every day can be gone in a second.
Gratitude doesn’t have to be for all of the best things in your life either. Do you have eyes in your head right now to read this? Sweet, that’s pretty dope. 36 million people in the world aren’t so lucky.
If you’re scrolling on a phone to read this, imagine how difficult your everyday life would be without it, and the opportunities and ease it affords you. You get the idea, and the examples are limitless.
One could even say those tiny little things that make you feel good for a moment, or longer, are worth giving more attention to, and we as privileged humans probably overlook them on a daily basis.
As I’ve explained in this article, it’s not exactly our fault (we can blame the ancestors and their knack for surviving).
I started out a series a couple of weeks ago, and it literally just gives a shout out to those good feelings we’re all familiar with that might slip under our radars if we let them.
If you haven’t already, you can check them out here and here.
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- Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.
- Achor, S. (2013). Before happiness: the 5 hidden keys to achieving success, spreading happiness, and sustaining positive change. First edition. New York: Crown Business.
2 thoughts on “Why Is It Easier To Focus On Negative Things? And What Science Says To Fix It”
Love this dude!!!
Thanks for reading, Randall! You're the man.