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Why Negative Thoughts Are Normal

... and what you can do to lighten their load.

If you often find yourself preoccupied with negative thinking, give yourself a break. If you can’t help breaking the golden rule (“If you don't have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all") you’re not alone. If you worry more about what might go wrong instead of simply enjoying what went right, join the club. We’re all humans.

Most of your thoughts are really just reflections of your feelings, emotions that you don’t choose. You don’t decide to get angry and disgusted when someone has criticized you, no more than you decide to be surprised and afraid when someone else sneaks up behind you and shouts, "Boo!" It simply happens with or without your compliance. Emotions generate automatic responses to help you avoid harm.

This can make finding happiness more elusive. Nature has heavily stacked the deck in favor of the negative. Consider the fact that almost all of our basic human emotions are far from warm and fuzzy and quite negative and aversive; e.g., anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

Joy is the only favorable and shining exception in the mix. It’s not that human nature inclines us to hate. We’re profoundly social creatures that evolved to protect: our kin, our tribe, and ourselves.

So it should come as no surprise that there are far more words in our everyday language to express negative feelings. Robert W. Schrauf, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Penn State, conducted a study that sheds light on how words provide clues to how people think and process emotions. In this study, the researchers asked people in Chicago and Mexico City to list the names of as many emotions they could think of spontaneously. These words were then categorized as negative, positive, or neutral.

They discovered that people, regardless of culture or age, know significantly more words to describe negative emotions than words to describe positive or neutral emotions. Of all the words participants listed, 50 percent were negative, 30 percent positive, and 20 percent were neutral. And this observation held true across age groups and cultures, suggesting that this a human tendency shared pan-culturally.

This also suggests that not only are we all predisposed to think negatively, we are also more inclined to engage more deeply with these emotions. As a result, we spend more of our time thinking negative thoughts. That’s because positive emotions tell us that everything is okay, so there is no need to think about them anymore. Because of that, these positive moments, although precious, are also few.

On the other hand, negative emotions tell us that something is wrong, so we are more likely to spend more attention, time, and energy processing these feelings. As Schrauf puts it, "Negative emotions require more detailed thinking, more subtle distinctions. So they require more names." Over centuries, cultures have developed more negative words because this helped ensure our survival and wellbeing.

The silver lining is, that despite a stacked deck, knowing why these emotions exist in the first place can help relieve you of their burden. After all, we live in a world today where survival is less tenuous than that of our forbears. We are less dependent on these feelings to protect us. This might give you more resolve to deal with that sarcastic text, when you realize that these annoyances aren’t exactly sabertooth tigers.

And although in the minority, the emotion of joy is also so fundamental to the human experience. Ironically one of the best ways to experience joy is through human connection and compassion. Realizing that we are all wired for negativity and that words can’t kill you might make it easier for you to forgive and move on. And that just might bring more joy to your life, however fleeting.

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