My mother often said: “We criticize the living but eulogize the dead.” Shakespeare, the bard himself, understood the power of negativity when he wrote the following lines for Mark Antony’s famous oration at Caesar’s funeral, in the play, Julius Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred in their bones;
The psychologist, John Gottman, after studying the interaction of hundreds of couples. has found that each partner, in a successful marriage, needs to give a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative comments to her/his partner. This ration means that five positive statements are needed to counteract the impact of the negative.
Society, in general, I’m afraid does not abide by this optimistic ratio set by Gottman in his criteria for a healthy loving marriage. A concrete example of the ubiquitous nature of negativity recently occurred, when a CEO of an agency of which I am quite familiar, made a comment that offended certain individuals. Granted, the remark may have not shown the best of all discretion, but the response to it brought a torrent of criticism and ill will. What surprised me was that this particular CEO had done an unusually skillful job in overseeing the integration of two separate entities to the liking of many of these same individuals, suddenly irate with him. His error in judgment, acknowledged by him, had appeared to very quickly erase much of the good he had done previously.
Recently, I booked a round trip ticket with my wife. After checking several flights, I decided to contact the airline directly because I had some questions about use of my mileage. The employee, who took my call, explained everything clearly, going over all the details regarding best ways of using my mileage. Furthermore, she did precisely what her job entailed, that is to locate the flight my wife and I most preferred vis-à-vis time of day, dates and our seat preferences. At the end of the conversation with her, I told her I wanted to write a brief note citing the good service she had provided us. When she directed me to the site where customers could give feedback about their experience with the airline personnel, the scroll down for comments only had a box for complaints but none for compliments. I jokingly told her it was apparent the airline expected people to find fault with its service. I thought to myself: “Woe be it that a customer has something good to say about an employee.” She pointed me to the “other” category as a means of writing my good feelings about her useful assistance and, in saying good-bye, expressed her gratitude.
A similar experience recently occurred when I had written a complimentary note to a medical staff assistant that had answered all the questions I had, about certain health issues, in a cordial and most precise way. Upon a return visit, I asked her if she had seen the positive comment I had written, and much to my surprise, she replied she had not.
The above illustrations are at the micro, if you will, individual level. However, I fear that the degree of negativity has been magnified by social media. The idea of sharing pieces of one’s life with friends suddenly became extended when Facebook developed the algorithm for the content that would get the most hits or “likes” with whomever saw your post. The “share” button had moved one’s remarks from her/his friends into the public domain. Unfortunately, due to revised algorithms, the posts that gained the most attention and engagement were those filled with rage an anger. If what they said triggered others to push negative buttons of anger or hate, users could suffer great humiliation and hurt. Angry hostile comments were more likely to go viral producing the most amount of hits on a website. The more moderate majority, that includes most of us, tended to opt out of this warfare resulting in the very nasty comments so entrenched in social media.
How we combat the power of social media is no easy dilemma to solve. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, has suggested raising the minimum age when teen-agers are allowed to indulge in social media from 13 to 16. But I believe parents still will need to monitor the amount of time they allow their children to spend on social media.
On a more individual basis, I have made an effort to buck this negative trend by rewarding positive behavior directed at me. I pointed out a few instances of this behavior in the above. Another instance of this occurred most recently when I left my charger to my iPhone home. Although I had scheduled two clients for telehealth that required use of my phone, as the day progressed, my cellular had very little battery strength. Fortunately, a woman from a neighboring office, with whom I had never spoken to, offered her charger for my phone that saved me from missing these clients. Subsequently, I surprised her by giving her a gift certificate at Trader Joe’s that I had bought in return for her favor.
I understand that my contribution to reversing the prevalence of negativity is small. However, on the other hand, if others made an effort to reinforce good deeds, I’m quite sure it would be uplifting for all of us. As I psychologist, I know that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Willingness to share our gratitude with others is perhaps the greatest way to thwart the pervasive impact of negativity. Let me conclude, by suggesting that you, my readers, make an effort to pass this attitude of gratitude or appreciation on to others, in work or outside of work, that have, in some way, made a positive contribution.