We live in a time in which a pervasive gloom hangs over us Negativity contaminates the air we breathe, that same air that can infect our bodies in unknown and scary ways. The unfortunate reality, that we all need to heed, is negativity carries a stronger valence than positivity. When we become more aware of our own negative biases as self-defeating and unhealthy, it is my hope that we will begin to replace the burden of negative feeling with more positive sentiments. A person that sees the glass as half full rather than half empty not only feels better about him or herself, but also is much more pleasant to have in one’s company.
I realize that the world is not just aromatic cherry blossoms, that is to say we certainly are not in the Garden of Eden. On the contrary, sometimes it feels like we may be closer to a dystopia rather than a utopia. The news, be it T.V., radio, newspapers or social media thrives on tragedy and negativity as a means of upping their ratings. Social media, especially, sees an increase in clicks indicating usage, not through love, but rather themes that provoke anger, hate and hostility.
The psychologist, Rick Hanson, expressed the impact of the negative this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.” When I was a student, I clearly remember, after completing an exam, having almost perfect recall of the test items that gave me difficulty. I was much more likely to answer those questions incorrectly as opposed to those items that required little effort for me to solve. Another psychologist, John Gottman, after studying hundreds of videotapes of couples in therapy in his analysis of successful and unsuccessful marriages, put the ideal ratio of positive to negative comments from one partner to another as 5 to 1. An equal amount of positive and negative comments does not bode well for a marriage given the much stronger impact of a negative statement than that of a positive one.
Daniel Kahneman and Alex Tversky’s research reviewed in their book, Thinking Fast and Slow, indicated that people miscalculate probabilities when they are confronted with financial risks that could result in loss. What these two investigators discovered is that a loss has about two and half times the impact of a gain of the same magnitude. This means we overvalue negative prospects as compared to positive ones. From a personal viewpoint, when I go to Las Vegas the pain of losing money always seems to outweigh the joy of winning.
I have learned from my own experience, along with that of my clients, bosses and co-workers tend to accentuate the negative rather than the positive. Over the years, I have done critical incident stress debriefings at different employment sites after a tragedy, such as when a death of an employee, had occurred. I could tell the staff and management were quite satisfied with my services. That was apparent when the same company, subsequently, would request me when another incident had occurred. However, I never received a follow-up call from these companies telling me what a great job I had done. Rather, on two separate occasions, a manager had voiced a complaint about my services to the insurance company that had requested my assistance. On one occasion, when the representative contacted me about these complaints, that were indeed minor, I remember telling him that I’m sure you are not calling because you have anything good to say to me. Inasmuch as I suspected what was coming, I tried to lighten the mood by adding that my mother told me years ago: “No news is good news.” When he chuckled at my comment, I knew the criticism that lay in front of me would not be too severe.
Given this propensity toward the negative in conjunction with the pain it causes its unhappy recipients, we need to make a special effort in paying attention to the way we treat others, be they family or friends. A simple example of this is in marriages. Gottman’s ratio of 5 to 1 emphasizes that expressing love regularly to a marital partner is of supreme importance to keep the marriage alive and vibrant. Many partners in marriages believe their spouse ought to know that they are loved after having lived together for so many years. This common mistake made by marital partners is called mind-reading and is not beneficial to a marriage.
Beyond one’s marriage, I suggest we make it a point to find good in what others are doing, and when you do, don’t conceal it. Say it to that other person. I am sure that if our comment is genuine, it will be much appreciated by whoever receives it. I can only speculate what our country would sound and look like if today’s political enemies dropped their swords for a moment and found something good to say about the other side on both a micro and macro level. We need to consciously work on expressing positive thoughts which in turn will create a healthier environment for us and those around us. As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I believe that we, as humans, have the capability of making these changes when we are so motivated.