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Do You Look for the Negative Even When Good Things Happen?

Science shows that you can make negativity work for you.

“The minute I start to think something is going my way, something bad always happens,” said Jane,* a professional in her thirties who had just been told that she was being given a promotion and a raise at work.

“I can’t believe I’m up to date on all of my work,” said Brian,* a doctoral student who had recently received a large grant for his research. “But it won’t last, of course. I’m already thinking about everything I have to start on as soon as I get back to the lab tomorrow.”

“Everything is set for my wedding to be a perfect day,” said Melanie.* “But I’m just waiting for something to go wrong.”

“My wife says she loves me,” said George,* “but she never has anything nice to say about me. To listen to her, I only do things wrong; nothing right. I don’t ever hear what she loves about me—or even what she might like.”

It would seem that all four of these individuals have good things going for them. So why aren’t they enjoying their successes? Are they just looking for trouble? Why can’t they look on the bright side?

If you have ever asked yourself any of these questions, you can now let yourself off the hook, at least a little bit. Research tells us that focusing on the negative is normal for adults. In fact, it is so common that it has a name: “negativity bias.” According to negativity bias, most adults tend to pay more attention to negative information and experiences than positive ones.

Negativity bias drives some problematic behavior, including not being able to enjoy the good things in life. According to one study, this phenomenon explains why news services focus on the bad stuff that’s happening—bad news draws our attention and therefore sells better than good news.

But, it turns out, “negativity bias” also serves some important psychological, emotional, and social purposes. Because the human brain is organized to learn from experience, we have developed the capacity to pay attention to negative experiences in order to protect ourselves from harm.

Research with infants and toddlers has shown that a heightened awareness of negativity, which exists in children as young as 11 months, helps protect them from potentially dangerous and noxious situations. Perhaps this is why “no” is one of the earliest words in the vocabulary of many of our children?

Interestingly, studies have also shown that for many of us, negativity bias decreases with age. According to Laura Carstensen and Marguerite DeLiema at Stanford University, “Relative to younger adults, older adults attend to and remember positive information more than negative information.” Based on two decades of research, they say that this shift, which they call the “positivity effect,” reflects a change in motivation as we get older, rather than a neural or cognitive decline.

In my own work as a psychotherapist, I have seen this shift in action; and I think it makes a lot of sense. When we’re younger, and striving to make our place in the world, we are on the lookout for the things that will impede our progress. As we get older, and hopefully feel more settled in the world, even though we might be facing problems that include illness and death, we may feel more secure in our ability to manage what life brings our way. And we can relax into—perhaps even look for—pleasure in the positive.

123RF/17323092 Shojiro Ishihara
Source: 123RF/17323092 Shojiro Ishihara

But does negativity need to color our lives until that moment arrives?

The answer is a definitive “no.” But because of the negativity bias, being able to appreciate the positive, whether it is in your work, your relationships, or just your life in general, takes a little extra work.

Here are four things that you can do to bring more positivity into your life without giving up the protection that the negativity bias offers.

1. Let yourself be negative when you need to. Since we have research showing that negativity is an important part of self-protection, you really don’t want to give it up completely. So if, for example, you are offered a new job and you find yourself thinking about all the things that could go wrong if you take it, don’t beat yourself up for being a pessimist. Remember instead that being negative is a way of paying attention to potential problems. You might in fact love the job, but it’s useful to anticipate some of the ways that it might not live up to your expectations. And if your negativity leads you to recognize that it actually would not be a good move for you, then it has done its work.

2. Look for balance. In a terrific blog post on the subject, my PT colleague Hara Estroff Marano tells us that happy couples have a good balance between their positive and negative feelings and behaviors toward one another, while unhappy couples do not have such a balance. She says that even couples who argue a lot can be happy with one another if they balance their disagreements with positive interactions. The same is true at a job or a career, in friendships, and in relationships between children and parents, siblings, and other family members.

Researchers have found that the optimal ratio of positive to negative is five to one in a happy marriage, and a little more than five and a half to one in a hard-working, successful business team.

How do you find such a balance? Psychotherapists have two sets of tools for helping clients shift behaviors and the feelings connected to them, and these two sets of tools make up the final two suggestions.

3. Consciously change your behavior. Recent developments in cognitive behavior therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (as well as numerous others) suggest that automatic, often unrecognized problematic behaviors often trigger painful emotions without you realizing what has happened. Identifying those behaviors, such as frequently being critical even of someone you love, is a first step to changing the feelings.

Accepting and knowing yourself, using mindfulness techniques (like meditation), personal exploration, honest and open conversations with friends and loved ones, self-help groups, and psychotherapy can be paths to such acknowledgment. And then you can make decisions to consciously alter the behaviors. Workbooks for making such changes abound, but you can also make a simple decision, for example, to compliment your partner, child, parent, or sibling five times for every time you criticize them.

This is, in fact, what happened to George.* Although he complained that his wife was critical of him, personal exploration and open conversation with her made him realize that he was often critical of her as well. He began to alter some of his comments, purposefully finding things he really did like about her, and saying those things instead of the negative ones that came to him first. It took a while, since she did not believe his compliments at first; but over time, the balance of negativity and positivity began to shift, and he realized that not only was he feeling better about his wife and his marriage, but that also she was giving him more positive feedback as well.

4. Try to understand where that behavior might have come from. This doesn’t mean automatically looking for what your parents did wrong, but it might mean trying to understand how some of their anxieties and negativities might still be coloring your adult experience. Jane,* for example, realized that she was feeling just as she had when she was a little girl and her mother had reassured her that everything was going to be alright any time she was worried. “I knew it wasn’t going to be alright,” she said. “I wasn’t always right, but when I was, I felt like at least I wasn’t taken by surprise!”

As she thought more about it, however, she also realized that her mother was simply trying to comfort her. “I think she worried about things, too, and she didn’t want me to be a worrywart like her. But because of her anxieties, she couldn’t help me realize that even if things didn’t work out, I would probably be able to handle them. I know now that I am well prepared to handle problems that might come up. I’m not that little girl anymore. I’m a successful, competent woman – and I have tools that my mom didn’t have.

5. Put all of the first four tools into place in relation to yourself. Chances are that you are overbalanced on the negative in your thoughts—maybe even more than in your actions with others. Start paying attention to how often you are negative about yourself and how often you are positive. Then consciously look for a positive thing to think about or tell yourself (and no, being positive is not just bragging! and will most likely not stop you from doing your work!). See if you can shift the balance to a five positive to one negative ratio in your own thoughts. It will probably take some work, but it is worth it!

Negativity does have a place in our lives—it is one of the ways that our brains help protect us from danger and pain. But when a tool that is meant to help us creates more pain than it saves us from, it is important to recalibrate the tool. When there is too much negativity, it no longer does what it needs to do. The good news is that there are, as we have just seen, effective tools for re-balancing negativity and positivity in your life. And with a better balance, chances are that other changes will follow.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.



References and Workbooks:

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

by Rick Hanson

The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)

by Matthew McKay, Jeffrey C. Wood, Jeffrey Brantley

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)

by Steven C. Hayes, Spencer Smith

Living Beautifully, with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh