5 Ways We Feed our Negativity Bias – And How to Stop!

We like to think we’re optimistic, positive people. After all, no one wants to be considered a grump (well… almost no one – I see you, J!). If you follow me, you know I’m an active advocate for the power of positivity and ways we can use happiness as a gauge of how we’re doing.

In truth, we don’t always quite hit the mark. I’ve railed against performative positivity, where we ignore the reality of emotions that make us uncomfortable or pay lip service to the practice without having the emotional literacy to navigate it effectively.  And, at the end of the day, we are still very much human.

We might mean to be positive, but those negative thoughts have a way of creeping in, especially if we’re tired or anxious.

Strong emotion has a way of derailing us, as do the negative influences around us. Even the most intentional among us have bad days (weeks, years…) where the biology takes over and we find ourselves in a funk.

While negativity bias is a very real biological impulse designed to keep us alive, we don’t have to surrender to our fate and live at its mercy. We actually have far more choice over how we react to our environment than we give ourselves credit for. To do that, it’s helpful to be able to recognize some of the road signs that suggest we’re heading down that familiar, miserable trail.  Here are five of the most common ones.

Black and White Thinking

If you catch yourself using ‘all’ or ‘nothing’ statements you’re already falling into a negativity mindset. When this comes up, the best thing to do is to remind yourself the world doesn’t really work that way. In fact, there are more shades of grey than you might think. When we’re in survival mode (like being cornered by an aggressive person on a Zoom call), our brains revert to this basic decision-making framework.  “Fight OR Flight!”  “Accept OR Quit!”  When this happens, and when we realize it’s happening, consider pausing and giving yourself a minute (or an hour) to calm down so you can more objectively look at the situation. You’ll probably find there are at least a handful of other options that might better meet your needs.  Don’t let the adrenaline win!

Tunnel Vision

When you can only see the bad in everything, it’s no wonder you can feel lost in a sea of despair and negative self-talk. My dad used to call this, “Looking at the world through sh*t-covered glasses”. When we feel trapped, however, we can stop looking for opportunities – to make changes, to escape, to take a break, to find an alternate path…. Look for the positive spin you can put on things. I find gratitude especially helpful in these situations. Gratitude doesn’t negate the reality, but rather changes the way I approach it.  “I’m super grateful that if I have to experience this, I can take these learnings and help others also facing these kinds of situations!” This “sow’s ear to silk purse” mindset helps me regain a little equilibrium so I’m not stuck. 

Expecting the Worst

When you can only see the negative outcome in everything, life kind of sucks! Sometimes, failure happens. Sometimes it’s truly catastrophic. As a former project manager, I think about this in terms of “Risk Management”. Your brain is already making up stories about the worst-case scenarios (thanks, negativity bias!) so use those to your benefit! You can even use dire predictions to work out a ‘plan B’ in case you need one but try not to get stuck in that doom spiral. Also, remember to remind yourself there’s also a chance of success in what you try. There’s no reason to assume the worst.

Horror Stories

We ALL do this – we can’t help it.  When we don’t have all the information, we start making up stories to fill in the gap – and those stories?  Very rarely filled with sunshine and rainbows. We assume, consciously or otherwise, that we know what someone else is thinking, and it’s never good. To combat it? Try having an honest conversation with the person instead. Let them speak for themselves. They might even surprise you. We might instinctively expect the worst, but we can re-align those expectations closer to reality if we get the real scoop.

Imposter Syndrome

Once upon a time, you didn’t know everything about something. Maybe that resulted in an unpleasant situation, maybe it didn’t, but the fear sticks with us. It’s time to let it go. For some people, their brains are expert at bringing up the past, regardless of how much time has passed or what you’ve done to correct the mistake, increase your knowledge, skills, network, abilities… When that nagging little voice shows up and threatens your confidence, remind yourself of the lessons you’ve learned. You may or may not be THE EXPERT in whatever it is you’re focused on. Are you good enough? Do you have the right tools, and more importantly, the right people on your team?  Probably. If not, who do you need to bring in to make things happen? Remember, the past is in the past. Look forward, seeing the possibilities. If you can’t completely let it go, use it as guidance in your own next steps so you’re that much MORE prepared for the next challenge. Nobody is perfect. Nobody knows everything. That’s not even the goal. Competence, confidence, and curiosity? Those will take you far.

To be fair, in the 80 gazillion things we experience on a daily basis, some of them, sometimes a WHOLE LOT of them, are not enjoyable. However, also in that 80 gazillion thing bucket, statistically there are at least a handful of experiences that are pretty good – or even better!  We’re wired to instinctively focus on bad stuff. That’s cool. Biology is neat, and keeps us alive. We don’t have to be at the complete mercy of survival instincts, though.  We can honor and appreciate those tendences and balance them out with actively, intentionally seeking out the good, because it’s there, too. And while happiness is the gauge of success, not the goal, we’re going to have more happiness when we’re looking for it.  After all, frequency illusion?  That’s science, too, and we can absolutely hack into that!


Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.

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