Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to focus on the positive aspects of your life? Why do we so easily slip into negativity? It almost seems like it’s our natural go-to.
I think taking a look at our ancestors might provide a clue (as well as a possible way forward).
Long ago, we lived in small groups. We were hunters and gatherers. The world was a dangerous place. We were at the mercy of nature. We had to be on guard at all times, or else we might get killed by a wild animal.
In this environment, it was adaptive to focus on the negative. Did you hear that rustle in the bushes? If not, you might be dead. Did you notice that storm on the horizon? If not, your community might get destroyed. The individuals and groups who were able to focus on the negative warning signs likely did better and survived, and were more successful in passing their genes down to the next generation.
Fast forward to 2015. Most of us probably live in a relatively safe and stable environment (at least compared to back then). But the tendency to focus on the negative is still with us. But instead of being adaptive, it makes us unhappy.
So what can we do moving forward? Can we change our genes?
Not completely. But I think there are a couple of helpful lessons we can learn to improve our sense of happiness and well-being.
- The bad is stronger than the good. Because of the way we are wired, negative events make more of an impact on our lives than positive events. For example, John Gottman did a bunch of research on marriages, and he found that happy marriages had a ratio of at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. Because we are more sensitive to bad events, it’s a good idea to structure our lives and relationships so we experience several more good events than bad events. Keeping it ‘even’ just isn’t good enough.
- Focusing on the positive takes concerted effort. Our natural tendency is to focus on the negative. That’s our default. It’s in our genes. If we want to make a shift and focus on the positive, it won’t just ‘happen.’ We have to cultivate positivity as a habit of mind. Some recent research showed it takes about 66 days to build a new habit. That’s a long time. If you want to build a habit of doing a quick gratitude exercise every evening, you need to schedule it in like you would a work appointment. Put it on your calendar. Eventually it will become part of your routine, but probably not for at least a couple months. Until then, you need to schedule it in.
Discussion: Do you tend to focus on the positive or the negative? What do you think about the links between evolution and our focus on the negative?