For the New Year, Say No To Negativity by J. Tierney an R. F. Baumeister

For the New Year, Say No To Negativity by John Tierney an Roy F. Baumeister

Via The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2020.

For the New Year, Say No To Negativity


Bad experiences affect us much more powerfully than good ones, but there are ways to deal with this destructive bias and overcome it

…For 2020, here’s a resolution that could actually work: Go on a low-bad diet.

Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: the negativity effect.

Also known as the negativity bias, it’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise.

We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles.

We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.

The negativity effect sounds depressing – and it often is – but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. By recognizing it and overriding our innate responses, we can break destructive patterns, make smarter decisions, see the world more realistically and also exploit the benefits of this bias.

….[The negativity effect was discovered only within the past two decades.] … Psychologists studying people’s reactions had found that a bad first impression had a much greater impact than a good first impression, and experiments by behavioral economists had shown that a financial loss loomed much larger than a corresponding financial gain.

…Studies showed that bad health or bad parenting makes much more difference than good health or good parenting.

A negative image (a photograph of a dead animal) stimulates more electrical activity in the brain than does a positive image (a bowl of chocolate ice cream). The pain of criticism is much stronger than the pleasure of praise.

…Today we’re assailed around the clock by merchants of bad. Politicians and journalists tap into primal emotions by hyping threats from nature, technology, foreigners, political opponents – whatever will instantly trigger the brain’s alarm system.

Once psychologists identified the negativity effect, they realized it had been distorting their own profession for a century.

Because negative events had stronger effects, these phenomena were easier to distinguish and measure than positive ones, so psychology journals and textbooks had devoted more than twice as much space to analyzing problems than to identifying sources of happiness and well-being.  

The research was further distorted when it reached the public, because it was filtered through journalists eager for news with the most immediate impact – which, of course, meant bad news.

So the public learned lots about psychoses and depression but precious little about the mind’s resilience and capacity for happiness. Post-traumatic stress disorder became common knowledge but not the concept of post-traumatic  growth, which is actually far more common.

… After recognizing their own bias, psychologists began compensating for it by studying the “positivity ration,” which is the number of good events or emotions for every bad one.

Researchers saw that older people are typically more contented than younger people because they’ve learned how to improve this ratio in their lives. They’ve gone on a low-bad diet, and that general approach can work for people of all ages.

Here are a few strategies:

First, do no harm.

… Avoiding bad is far more important than doing good.

…Minimizing the negative is similarly crucial in business [as it is in marriage]. Angry customers can have such a disproportionate impact – especially the ones who post online reviews – that market researchers refer to them as “terrorists.”

Research into the varieties of “bad apples” in the workplace has shown that the performance of a team depends not on the average of its members’ abilities but rather on the ability of the worst member. Several stars can’t compensate for a dud.

Remember the Rule of Four.

Many studies – of spouses’ interactions, people’s diaries, workers’ moods, customers’ ratings – have shown that a negative event or emotion usually has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive one.

So to come out ahead, we suggest keeping in mind the Rule of Four:  It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.

This is a rule of thumb, not a universal law of nature. It doesn’t apply to every person in every situation, but it’s a useful gauge of well-being and progress.

…If you want to keep your business afloat, aim for at least four satisfied customers for every unsatisfied one. If you have four good days at work from Monday through Thursday, that’s usually enough to make up for a bad Friday.

…Keep that ratio in mind when considering the impact of your actions. If you’re late for one meeting, you won’t redeem yourself by being early the next time. If you say or do something hurtful, don’t expect to atone for it with one bit of good-will. Plan on at least four compliments to make up for one bit of criticism.

Put the bad moments to good use.

Instead of despairing a setback, override your gut reaction and look for a useful lesson.

The upside of the negativity effect is its power to teach and motivate. Penalties are usually more effective than rewards at spurring students and workers to improve.

…The self-esteem movement – one of the sorrier mistakes in psychology – left many parents reluctant to criticize or penalize children, and the everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy has produced rampant grade inflation in high school and college. …

Capitalize on the good moments – and then relive them. 

Of all of Mark Twain’s aphorisms, the one with the most empirical support is a bit of wisdom from the title character of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “To get the full value of job, you must have somebody to divide it with.”

Psychologists call it capitalization and have  found that sharing good news is one of the most effective ways to become happier – but only if the other person responds enthusiastically, so make sure you rejoice in your friend’s good fortune (or at least fake it.)

Sharing good news makes the triumph more significant, so it’s more likely to be recalled later, which is another proven way to boost happiness.

Engaging in nostalgia was long considered a sign of depression, but experiments have repeatedly found it’s a tool not just for appreciating the past but also for brightening both the present and the future.

One reason that happiness increases beyond middle age is that older people spend more time savoring good memories instead of obsessing about today’s worries.

See the big picture. 

Just about every measure of human welfare is improving except one: hope. The better life gets, the gloomier our worldview.

…Crime has plummeted in the U.S., but most Americans think it has risen because they see so much mayhem on their screens.

The same basic approaches for dealing with the power of bad in your personal relationships and business – minimize the negative, accentuate the positive – can help you to overcome the negative bias that skews politics and public opinion.

When politicians and pundits are attacking each other, switch channels. By choosing your online friends carefully and curating your news feed, you can follow the Rule of Four – at least four uplifting stories for every bad one – and get a much more accurate view of the world.

By rationally looking at long-term trends instead of viscerally reacting to the horror story of the day, you’ll see that there’s much more to celebrate than to mourn.


The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch

What Harvard’s Grant Study Reveals about Happiness and Life by Dan Slater

Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and the Fallacy of Successs and Happiness by Tanya Ba Su

Ten Troubling Habits Of Chronically Unhappy People by T. Bradberry

The 14 Simple Ways to Increase Happiness and They’re All Backed by Science

Trying to Be Happy Is Making You Miserable. Here’s Why. By J. Ducharme 

Survey: Pet Owners Happier, Wealthier, More Fit Than Non-Owners

Celebrity, Fame, and Fortune Don’t Always Guarantee Happiness and Fulfillment

How People Learn to Become Resilient by Maria Konnikova

Forget Positive Thinking: This Is How To Actually Change Negative Thoughts For Success by M. Wilding

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