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How Our Negativity Bias Impacts Resilience


A drawing showing how gratitude combats the negativity bias and leads to resilience.

❝The more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are a victim of resentment, depression, and despair.❞ -Sam Keen

I'm getting ready to go to work when I get a call from my boss. It's 2005, and I recently moved to Minneapolis, MN from Fargo, ND, and I work at a bank. I'm surprised when I pick up the phone and my boss tells me not to come in today. He tells me not to come in because they don't want me working there anymore.


I got fired.


How can they fire me? What gives them the right? I spend the next month being pissed off at this company and my old boss for unfairly firing me. It's not fair. I don't deserve this. Worst of all, they seem to be singling me out for voicing opinions that everybody has.


I spent that month ruminating about how I was unfairly treated. And as a result, I didn't get very far in terms of finding a new job.


I spent way too much time thinking about all the negative aspects of what happened. I completely overlooked the fact that I didn't even like working there. I worked for a company that sold subprime mortgages to people who couldn't afford them. I hated this. I hated the people I worked with. Not being able to work with them anymore was a blessing, but I missed it.


I also didn't pay much attention to the fact that I had supportive friends and family members who were willing to help me out in my time of unemployment. I had a good support network that I ignored so that I could ruminate on all the ways I had every right to be pissed off.


I was infected with negativity bias, and that impacted my ability to bounce back and be resilient. I wasn't able to see all the things I was grateful for.


WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO


It's been said that our life becomes what we pay attention to. If we find ourselves paying attention to all the bad that's around us, then we will evaluate our lives as being negative. If, on the other hand, we pay attention to all the good that's around us, then we will be more likely to evaluate our lives as being positive.


Attention comes in two forms. There are demands on our attention, meaning that something might draw our attention away from what we were focusing on. These could be external demands on our attention, like if we hear a loud sound or experience a sharp pain. They could also be internal demands on our attention, like a thought that grabs our attention or an intense feeling that demands our attention. The other form of attention is regulated attention. This is when we consciously choose what to pay attention to.


In all of the above cases, if we notice bad things everywhere, either by choice or because something called our attention, then our life sucks. If we notice good things everywhere, then we will think life is good.


Unfortunately, we are hardwired to skew toward the negative.


A drawing showing how negativity bias focuses our attention on the bad while ignoring the good. It impacts us because life is what we pay attention to.

NEGATIVITY BIAS


We come wired with a built-in negativity bias. That means that we will notice more negative things than positive things, the negative things will stick with us longer than the positive things, and we will remember more negative things than positive things. Author Rick Hanson says that our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences.


There are biological reasons for this; we can't be right all the time. If we spot what looks like an opportunity and it's an opportunity, then we're right, and all is good. If we spot what looks like a threat and it's a threat, then we can do something about it and we'll be fine.


But we can't be right all the time. And if we're going to be wrong, then we need to be careful about how we're going to be wrong. If I see an opportunity, but I think it's a threat, then all that happens is that I miss an opportunity. If, on the other hand, I see a threat, but I think it's an opportunity, then it's game over.


For example, if I see a stick, but I think it's a snake, then I might run away. If I run away, the worst thing that will happen to me is that I might get a little bit embarrassed. But I survive until tomorrow to get embarrassed again.


A drawing showing why the negativity bias evolved to help us survive.



Resilience is the ability to bounce back from or recover from stress and setbacks. The more resilient you are, the less likely you are to experience anxiety, depression, negative affect, and physical symptoms. This scale assesses your resilience.



On the other hand, if I see a snake, but I think it's a stick, then I find myself out of the game.

​​​

The people in our distant past who focused more on the positives than the negatives didn't survive to become our ancestors.

A drawing showing what would happen if we had the opposite of negativity bias - a positivity bias, and we ignored threats.

GRATITUDE


The antidote to the negativity bias is gratitude. Gratitude takes practice. Gratitude involves paying close attention to all the things that you're grateful for. You pay more attention to what is going well in your life to combat that negativity bias.


There are many ways to practice gratitude. The easiest and most common is to think about three things at the end of the day for which you were grateful. In the beginning, you might struggle to come up with three or even one thing you're grateful for, but over time you'll notice that you'll start to spot them throughout the day as you prepare to write them down that night.


A more advanced version of gratitude, which you can download here, is to think of specific ways you are grateful. This involves trying to be grateful for what might be considered negative events. You can try to be grateful for something bad that almost happened but didn't. You can try to be grateful for something bad that happened but could have been worse. You can even be grateful that you haven't lost something that it is possible you could have lost.


No matter how you practice gratitude, it's important to feel the gratitude. Visualize it if you can. If your gratitude practice becomes something you feel obligated to do, then it becomes a chore, and it loses its effect. It also makes it less likely that you'll want to do it.

A drawing and graph showing that what we have is what we used to want.

RESILIENCE


Resilience is the process of bouncing back after a setback. It's the ability to learn from the challenges that you've experienced so that you can apply them going forward.


The first component of resilience is noticing that things aren't as bad as they seem. After a setback, even a minor one, it can feel as though nothing is going right. This is rarely the case. There's a lot going well for you. There are people around you that can help you. Moving your attention away from all of the areas in which your life is going poorly and towards areas where your life is going well will help you become more resilient.

A drawing and chart showing how resilience helps us bounce back after a setback.

Our ability to be resilient is colored by our negativity bias. The negativity bias almost guarantees that we will think that life is out to get us. Gratitude is the antidote to the negativity bias and encourages us to shift our attention towards the things that are going well, and that will help us become more resilient.


You get one life; live intentionally.


 

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Related Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!

Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient

Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom

PositivePsychology.com: Realizing Resilience Masterclass

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor


Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.

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