Karolyn A. Gazella

The Healing Factor

The Importance of Decreasing Negative Influencers

We can re-wire our internal emotional landscape

Posted Jul 19, 2013

Are we hard-wired to focus on the negative? Is that why we tend to give more power to negative feedback, emotions, and events than we do positive? Science says yes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change it.

In a 2001 article in the Review of General Psychology, Dutch researchers explain that the human brain processes negative information more thoroughly than it processes positive input. The authors point out that this tendency can be traced back to the dawn of time. From an evolutionary standpoint, paying more attention to potential negative events meant increased survival—and those negative-focused genes have been passed on for generations. After all, back in the days of living in caves and fighting off tigers, positive events might not have a noticeable effect on one’s life, but a negative one could quickly end it.

But we are no longer being chased by tigers, so why do we continue to be so attuned to negative events? Could this “survival mechanism” actually be getting in the way of our long-term health? And more importantly, can we rewire this innate survival fixation and tap into the power of positivity?

Negative Influence

Think back to the last time you couldn’t fall asleep at night. Was it because negative thoughts were racing through your head, or positive ones?

If you’re like most people, you’re more likely to ruminate over the negative stuff that happens to you than the positive. This “over thinking” gives negative thoughts, emotions, and events even more power. For example, if a loved one tells you how smart you are, you smile, thank them, and promptly forget about it. If, on the other hand, a loved one calls you a worthless idiot, you’ll probably fume, retell the story, and obsess about it. It will occupy your thoughts and emotions for far longer than the positive thought ever did. And when that happens, we’ve just granted a negative event a disproportionate amount of power.

While that can be annoying, it can also be bad for our health. Too much negative thinking can put us at risk of developing depression and other mental health issues, as researchers at the University of Notre Dame discovered in a study published earlier this year in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

The researchers looked at 103 pairs of college roommates and evaluated how students tended to view negative situations, and what influence that had on their roommates. They found that within just three months, the thought patterns of the roommates started to affect each other. Negative thinkers were making positive roommates more negative and also making them more vulnerable to depression. But in some cases, the positive thinkers were influencing the negative roommates.

The bottom line? The way we think about and view the world is not hardwired. Lead researcher Gerald Haeffel, PhD, noted on NPR that this internal emotional trait is as malleable as learning a new language. When we learn this new “psychological language,” he says, we are potentially reducing our risk of developing depression.

Of course, Haeffel points out that it’s impossible to be cheery all of the time and only have positive friends. After all, as humans we have a spectrum of emotions and to mask any of them, even the negative ones, would be inauthentic. The key is to shift the ratio of positive to negative. For example, for every gloom and doom person in your life, can you think of four others who view the glass as half full? How frequently do you smile throughout the day? Can you increase that? And how quickly can you move on after experiencing a negative event? Can you make a conscious effort to shift your thoughts toward the positive sooner? Surrounding yourself with supportive people will help.

Taking steps to proactively increase our external positive influencers can help re-wire our internal emotional landscape. Now that we know it is possible to transform our thinking, we can in turn positively impact the way we feel about ourselves, our lives, and our world. We can finally shake that evolutionary tiger on our tail.