- People live not only in the physical world, but also in an inner world made up of their thoughts and feelings.
- Some people are more prone to negative emotions. This is called "dispositional negativity."
- There are ways people can begin to change their disposition to negativity, such as by approaching their minds with acceptance and compassion.
by Pelin Kesebir, Ph.D.
I would like you to pause for a moment and ask yourself: What does your general emotional landscape look like?
On a regular day, how much negativity do your thoughts and feelings contain, as opposed to positivity? How frequently do you experience emotions that are unpleasant (and are hence called “negative emotions”), such as anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, or jealousy—as opposed to pleasant emotions such as joy, love, interest, or hope?
Your answers to these questions can give you a rough idea of your general proneness to negative emotions. There is no denying that some people experience negative emotions more often, more intensely, and for longer periods than others. Psychologists refer to this individual difference as “dispositional negativity.” Most of us can immediately call to mind somebody high in dispositional negativity, or maybe—you see yourself in that description.
Dispositional negativity is widely researched in psychology, along with the closely related construct of “neuroticism.” Its relevance is well-justified, as this personality dimension can have an enormous effect on our lives. For one, people with high levels of dispositional negativity report poorer mental health. They are more likely to experience psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. High levels of dispositional negativity are linked to various health issues, as well, including heart problems, sleep disorders, asthma, and eczema.
Before I delve further into this important topic, however, I want to emphasize one thing: Experiencing negative emotions is not a problem, in and of itself.
Emotions are both necessary and inevitable, and they have their place even in the happiest life. It’s when we experience these emotions with a frequency and intensity that goes beyond what the circumstances call for that the quality of our lives lowers substantially. Fortunately, this is something we can all work on. While we do that, it is important to remember that negative emotions are not the enemy, and eliminating them altogether is neither feasible nor desirable.
How does a disposition to negative emotions show up in our thoughts and feelings?
We experience negative emotions in response to perceived threats to our well-being. Being saddened by the death of a loved one or getting angry by injustice, for instance, are entirely normal and healthy reactions. What distinguishes people high and low on dispositional negativity is not whether or not they respond to such distressing situations with negative emotions (they do), but rather the severity and duration of these responses. Of crucial interest here is what we at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison call “affective chronometry”—how people respond to certain stressful stimuli and emotions, and how long those emotional responses last. People who are at the high extreme of dispositional negativity are quite slow at recovering from negative emotions, whereas those at the low extreme can recover fast.
Following an encounter with a rude driver in traffic, for example, someone low on dispositional negativity may get upset but then forget about it within a few minutes, never to think about it again. The same incident may be difficult to leave behind for someone high on dispositional negativity, with thoughts about the disrespectful driver popping up hours or even days later, and continuing to upset them.
Negative emotions are thus more “sticky” for those high in dispositional negativity, both in minor situations like an annoying traffic encounter and in more major and traumatic life events, such as losing a job or the death of a loved one. If we define resilience as the rapidity with which we bounce back from negative emotions following adversity, it becomes clear why dispositional negativity is inversely associated with resilience.
We have seen that high dispositional negativity predisposes us to greater reactivity to clear threats and stressful situations. But as it turns out, people high in dispositional negativity report greater levels of negative emotions even in the absence of any apparent stressors—for example, when they are just sitting at home. This points to a negative emotional tone that is somewhat independent of the context and is driven more internally than externally. Like living in a harsher geographic climate with more unfavorable conditions, dispositionally negative people’s minds are generally inhabited by more unpleasant, more challenging thoughts and feelings.
Is it possible to reduce our dispositional negativity?
Like other major personality traits, dispositional negativity is partially explained by inherited biological predispositions. These predispositions interact with environmental factors—such as parental warmth or the predictability of early life conditions—to further shape our level of dispositional negativity. Although these influences give it some stability across life, studies suggest that dispositional negativity can change significantly over time. Positive life experiences, psychotherapy, and pharmacological interventions are some of the ways through which this change can come about.
If you believe that you could benefit from working on your dispositional negativity, and if your circumstances permit, turning to professional help could prove very effective. But even on our own, there are things we can do that would help us curb our mind’s negative habits.
1. Don’t Fight Negative Emotions
We may have a biological inheritance and a personal history that predisposes us to feel negative emotions more frequently and more intensely than we want. Although it is completely understandable that we might at times beat ourselves up for this predisposition, it is essential not to blame ourselves. Treating ourselves as an adversary is never helpful. In contrast, a large body of research documents the benefits of approaching our minds with acceptance, understanding, and compassion. This does not mean that we do not take actions that will help us deal with difficult emotions. It only means learning to become more comfortable with having these emotions—allowing them to exist for the moment, instead of waging an exhausting and futile war against them.
2. Train Your Mind to Support Emotional Regulation
To reduce our susceptibility to negative emotions, we need to work on our emotional regulation skills. This type of work is about changing our mental habits—habits such as what we habitually pay attention to and how we interpret what we see. We know, for example, that people with higher levels of dispositional negativity often are quick to attend to negative stimuli in their environment and interpret things in a pessimistic style.
To change our attentional and interpretational habits, we first need to learn to become aware of them in the moment and then endeavor to replace them with more constructive responses. This whole process can greatly benefit from developing mindfulness skills. Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is going on in our minds, our bodies, and the surrounding environment—and doing this in a kind and curious manner. The meta-awareness and the non-judgmental manner that characterize mindfulness are great tools for any habit change attempt in our lives.
A recently published paper out of the Center highlights the importance of mindfulness as a key skill to train on the path to well-being.
3. Nourish Your Body
Neglecting our bodies’ needs such as sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise can significantly undermine our emotional regulation capacity and increase our negative emotions. Optimizing our bodily health to the best of our ability should be a priority for anybody who wants to inhabit a more pleasant emotional climate.
If you consider yourself to be high on dispositional negativity, perhaps the most important thing to know is that it is possible to change. Although it’s not easy, it would probably be one of the most impactful things that you can do for your happiness and health.
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Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2013). The emotional life of your brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live—and how you can change them. Penguin.
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