I bet we can all remember the last time someone asked us, “What’s wrong?” More challenging, perhaps, would be recalling a time someone asked, “What’s right?”
Let’s face it. We humans have a habit of paying more attention to upsetting rather than joyful things. In psychology, there is a name for this phenomenon. It is called the negativity bias.
What is negativity bias?
Negativity bias is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation. It allowed our ancient ancestors to assume that a saber tooth tiger would eat them instead of wanting to play. At one point in human history, the negativity bias serves us well!
Today, our tendency to give undue attention to things that go wrong rather than right is disproportionate to the lived experience of most humans. This has contributed to the way in which we think about, well, our thinking. When we chronically assume the worst, negativity feels like realism. For many, realistic thinking seems like false positivity!
Realistic thinking is balanced, present-moment thinking. It accepts a thought, person, or situation for what it is in that moment, acknowledging and allowing the potential for change. Thinking realistically means we stop consciously or unconsciously arguing with the way things are. When we are able to accept the nature of a situation without exaggerating its positive or negative components, we become more responsive and less reactive. We make more clear-minded decisions and cultivate a greater degree of inner peace.
The undesirable consequences of negative thinking.
Whether we know it or not, we regularly experience negativity bias and its effects. We remember criticism, but not compliments. When asked how our day was, we recall what caused us stress and anxiety, but not what made us smile. And who hasn’t spent a tremendous amount of time worrying about potentially distressing events that “might” happen?
When left unchecked, negativity bias contributes to greater feelings of disconnection and disharmony. Ruminating on negative thoughts contributes to depression and increases stress and anxiety. It impacts our relationships because we assume the worst about other people. Negativity bias even impacts how we make decisions. Innovation is reduced and creativity is disrupted when we are unwilling to take reasonable risks.
Yoga practices can help us mitigate the unhelpful effects of an overactive tendency towards negativity. First, we must become aware of the impact negative thinking has on our lives. Reducing negative thoughts does not mean we abandon caution and view the world through our proverbial rose-colored glasses. Yoga teaches us to remain present in our moment-to-moment experience without judging it as good or bad. When we stop arguing with the way things are and accept a given situation as-is, we create the space for transformation to occur.
Here are a few ways Yoga helps us reduce unhelpful negative thinking….
- A key area of addressing negativity bias is noticing our own internal dialogue. Our mental self-talk is often harsher and far more critical than anything we’d say to another person! When we become aware of how we “speak” to ourselves, we can work to adopt more realistic expectations of ourselves and of what we are capable.
- Yoga teaches us to release our attachments. Non-attachment does not mean that we do not care. Rather, we care enough to allow things to be as they are. When we are non-attached to a person, idea, or situation, we accept it without asking it to be anything other than it is. The basic nature of the Universe is change. This participation in Universal flow not only means we cultivate an accepting attitude, but it also allows for change and growth to occur.
- Practicing gratitude is an effective way to shift from a gloomy outlook towards a brighter one. Because negativity is an unconscious bias, we must consciously work to change our thinking patterns. When we foster gratefulness, we build new mental habits. We train our brains to look for good things instead of just avoiding bad things. Many people enjoy keeping a gratitude journal. Try it! Keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. Upon waking, simply write down three things you are grateful for. When we do this practice regularly, we teach our minds to notice more things of which to be grateful!