The act of staying positive at times feels like swimming upstream. If news is negative, it earns more retweets on Twitter. TV viewers often prefer and remember negative stories.
But does this mean we are bad people who enjoy the suffering of others? Not necessarily.
Numerous studies have described a negativity bias where negative events in our environment grab hold of our attention more easily than positive ones. Not only does negative information more readily find its way into our minds, but researchers have found that we favor passing it along to others over the happier parts of a story. Essentially, what’s wrong tends to “survive” better than what’s going well when people re-tell a story that features ups and downs.
One explanation relates to our biological and evolutionary makeup. Closely monitoring our environment for threats has helped us survive over time. Dangerous situations dominate our attention and cause high levels of arousal, like a built-in alarm system. Research suggests that this negativity bias broadly influences the way we process information in the world, not just when we feel threatened.
We don’t need something bad happening to us to begin thinking negatively. In fact, negative thoughts can occur spontaneously, without an outside trigger. They can even become intrusive in our lives, especially when suffering from depression, bereavement, extreme stress, or an anxiety disorder.
But there is good news from research in affective science, also known as the study of emotions. Healthy adults tend to experience positive feelings more frequently than negative feelings. Along with those good feelings, positive thoughts can arise spontaneously and affect our choices. For example, we naturally think about activities we greatly enjoy and those thoughts predict how often we engage in those activities. Positive thoughts about our passions are also tied to less depression, greater meaning in life, and higher life satisfaction.
Here are some practical ways of increasing positive spontaneous thoughts, particularly when we find ourselves surrounded by negativity:
Schedule an enjoyable or meaningful activity. Planning something fun sets up a state of positive anticipation, which is associated with greater well-being, and can trigger enjoyable thoughts leading up to it.
Keep a positive event journal. Studies have found that keeping a daily record of positive experiences can improve mood and reduce worrying. The journal can help positive thoughts circulate in your mind.
Make a list of your top three strengths. When we intentionally think about the best aspects of who we are, we are more likely to think in positive ways about ourselves. By listing three strengths and thinking of one specific example for each, you can enhance your positive sense of self. If you need help identifying your strengths, there are 24 “signature” character strengths you can measure in yourself at viacharacter.org.
Spend time with happy people. Positive feelings enhance our connectedness with others and can be contagious. Spending time each week with others who express positivity can stimulate it within yourself.
Be compassionate toward your negative thoughts. When you have negative thoughts, studies find that taking a mindfulness approach may help you react to them in healthier ways. This means considering the thought without judgment, without trying to push it away. You might even say to yourself, “That’s an unpleasant thought. It’s okay that I’m having it. I’m just going to let it pass.”
Learning to be more positive is like going to gym to build muscle strength. It’s not something we can expect to happen overnight, but focused work each day can gradually increase the ease with which we can lift the good parts of life into our awareness.