Negativity is a fact of life. I know, a slightly unorthodox way to start an article about happiness, but bear with me. Unpleasant thoughts and feelings are part of what it means to be human and, in many ways, they do play an important part in our day-to-day lives. Negativity can motivate us, keep us safe and teach us about ourselves, all useful things.
But what about when negativity gets out of control? What do we do when negative thoughts and feelings start to take over?
Let’s find out.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What does negativity look like?
There are many ways in which negativity manifests itself in our lives. From thoughts of helplessness to dissatisfaction with our work, pessimism can creep up in many different areas of day-to-day life. Some amount of negativity is normal, and we all have days where we just feel a bit… meh, but constant pessimism can be indicative of a whole host of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders and depression; not to mention the fact that chronic negativity can also have physical ramifications such as sleeping issues, high blood pressure and heart disease.
According to The University of Minnesota, the chronic stress that can come from unmanaged negativity can even decrease our lifespan. Yep, rampant negative attitudes can kill you, albeit very slowly. All in all, I think it’s clear that too much negativity is… well… definitely a negative.
But does it always have to be a bad thing?
Negativity has a purpose
Negativity is actually a very useful part of our characters. Some forms of negativity, such as skepticism and unoptimistic realism, can come with positive effects such as increasing a person’s ability for clear judgment and self-motivation.
In fact, Julie Norem, as quoted by Adam Grant, says in her book The Positive Power of Negative Thinking that so-called ‘defensive pessimists’ can be just as successful as ‘strategic optimists’ because of their lower expectations leading them to plan more and work harder. By never assuming success, they put in more effort to ensure it, regardless of how often they may have succeeded before.
So negative thoughts and feelings don’t have to be all bad. But if they do get too powerful and the dark clouds begin to descend, what can we do to help ourselves?
Turn negativity into positivity
It’s worth remembering that humans, by our very nature, have something called a negativity bias. Essentially, this is the term we use to describe our tendency to prioritize bad things over good things due to our natural instinct to protect ourselves against threats. This bias, however, is not nearly as useful to us now as it was for our more wild ancestors, given how much less we have to worry about dying horrible and violent deaths at the hands (or paws) of wild animals and preventable diseases.
Instead, we need some strategies to deal with this phycological remnant of times gone by. Let’s take a look at a few.
1. Practice forgiveness
In this context, forgiveness consists of fully accepting negative events that have occurred, through which we can then let go of our negative feelings about what happened. Studies show by allowing negative hang-ups to drift away and simply accepting events as they are, we can improve both our mental and physical health, potentially even leading to better immune function and longer lifespans.
The best part? This is a cognitive skill that can be taught and learned! Through meditation and ‘forgiveness practice’, we can teach ourselves to not only forgive the actions of others but also our own actions, leading to a more positive outlook and self-image.
Basically, guys, give yourself a break. You’re doing great!
2. Practice gratitude
Just as we should accept the negative things that happen in our lives, so too should we be grateful for the good things that come our way. In a study quoted by the University of Minnesota (those guys really love this topic apparently) is was found that people who were asked to ruminate on the good things that happened to them were healthier and happier, would sleep better, and even engage in exercise more… Imagine that!
Being thankful for what you have and giving yourself time to feel gratitude can be a powerful tool in the fight against negativity, and one that should not be overlooked. It forces us to recognize the positive things around us, which often puts the negative things into perspective, making them more manageable and generally less of a ‘big deal’.
3. Review, replace and repeat
Another way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings is to replace them with positive thoughts that are more constructive. Obviously, this is not the easiest thing in the world to do and it may sound like an oversimplification, but let me explain.
The basic principle here is that you need to pay attention to your thoughts, and when unwarranted negativity rears its ugly head, you need to catch it and interrogate it. Ask yourself if the feeling or thought has any truthful basis? What would you say to someone else if they were having this thought? What can you do to get out of this mental space?
With the review done, we can move on to replacing the thought. Here, we take the negative feeling and flip it on its head. If you notice yourself thinking ‘I am useless’ for example, you would start to consciously tell yourself the opposite, using only positive words – not ‘I am not useless’ but ‘I am valuable’ instead. Make sense?
Then we repeat. Every time the negative thought rises to the surface you slap it back down with its opposite. You can write the positive thought over and over on a piece of paper or even write it down and stick the sign in a visible place, like on the fridge door or your computer screen. Whatever works for you, do it, and do it consistently. This is not a quick fix, but with a few weeks of application, it might just start to help. You’ll be thinking your way out of negativity. Go you!
Negativity is a curse that we all have; it’s the price we pay for being human (albeit without much choice). But negative thoughts and feelings have their place, and to try to never have them would not only be impossible, but foolish.
At times in your life, negativity will protect you from harm and force you to be your best. The dark feelings that we spend all our time trying to avoid may just be the things that help us push that bit further or climb that much higher. Too much negativity is most definitely a problem, no doubt about it, and I hope that you might be able to employ one of the strategies above to help you through those times when your personal black dog seems to look more like a wolf. But when you notice negativity creeping in around the edges of your mind, maybe don’t avoid it and suppress it, as so many people do, to the detriment of your health. Instead, let the pessimist flow and harness it, letting the sails of your ambition billow with drive and determination.
Water into wine, lead into gold, history is full of tales of spectacular transformations. So why not negativity into positivity?
Good luck. You’ve got this.