Negativity: 17 Ways to Undo Negative Thinking
What is negativity? Where does negativity come from? And how do you turn your negative thoughts and emotions into more positive thoughts and emotions? Find out here.
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What is negativity?
Negativity is defined as the tendency to be down, skeptical, and pessimistic. If we are being negative, we generally find the worst in any situation, often even seeing negative things where they may not exist. That's why negativity tends to be bad for our mental health and well-being.
What is the negativity bias?
We're all prone towards negativity because we have a negativity bias. The negativity bias is the notion that negative things (emotions, thoughts, events) tend to have a larger effect on our mental state and well-being than positive things.
Where else does negativity come from?
In addition to the negativity bias, some of us may be prone to negativity because of genetic or environmental factors. For example, the COMT gene can make us more anxious and worried, leading us to experience negative situations more intensely. The way we were raised can also increase our negativity. For example, if our parents were always complaining and pointing out the negative things in life, then we were actually taught to see these negative things more clearing than people whose parents focused on positive things.
Can we become less negative?
Absolutely! The whole concept of therapy is about teaching people skills that help them reduce negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is entirely possible to reduce our negativity. That being said, our brains have already developed habits that make it easier for us to be negative. Learning how to be more positive will take some effort and practice. Here's how to get started:
1. Take the Well-Being Quiz
Not sure whether you're a negative nelly? Take this well-being quiz to get a better sense of some of the things that might be contributing to lower well-being. Any of these things can put you in bad mood, so working on the things that you personally struggle with is a great start.
2. Train your brain to focus on positive more than negative
It turns out that some people have more of a negativity bias than others. For those of us who focus on the negative, our brains have developed pathways that help us keep seeing the negative more easily than the positive. It's difficult to just will our brains to work differently, that's why we have to train the brain to see the positive.
If you're struggling with negativity, it can help to memorize positive words and then quiz yourself on these positive words later. This forces your brain to activate the regions associated with these words (i.e., the memories and associations with positive things). When any region of the brain is activated, it gets stronger. So memorizing positive words can make positive concepts, memories, and ideas more accessible and easily activated in your brain. The more you activate these regions, the stronger they will get. So when you're feeling negatively, your brain will likely have an easier time switching out of this negative mode.
Luckily, psychologists have measured the emotional content of thousands of words to find the positive and negative ones. To use these positive words to reduce negativity, grab our positive word flashcard book.
3. Get unstuck from negative ruminative cycles
Do you dwell on the negative things, thinking about them over and over until you're miserable? You can't think you way out of it because your brain is kind of stuck. Instead, you have to force your brain to think of something else, usually by doing something else.
Some of the best ways to stop negative rumination are to activate your body. You could exercise, take some deep breaths, or take an ice cold shower. These physical activities can short-circuit negativity and help you get back control over your mind.
Video: Getting stuck in negativity
4. Address negative thinking styles
Negativity often comes from using particular thinking styles that generate negative emotions. Ask yourself, do you tend to use the thinking styles below?
5. Try reducing negativity with positive imagination
When we imagine things, the brain gets kind of confused and has a similar response as it would if these things were really happening. That means we can use imagination to create more positive emotions, less negative emotions, and the bodily responses that go along with it. So try to imagine what happiness feels like. Here's a video exercise to help you feel happiness if you need help.
6. Calm negative emotions with meditation
Mindful meditation can be really helpful for calming the mind and body. All that negative emotion can really get us activated, and by taking time to soothe those emotions, they can become easier to release. If you need a guided mediation, check out the video below to let go of negativity.
Video: Let go of negativity
7. Change your attribution style
We can end up feeling a lot of negativity about ourselves when we have certain attribution styles. For example,
We you find yourself using these attributions, try to stop and question them. If you are responsible for the bad things, then you are also responsible for the good.
8. Savor the good things to reduce negativity
When we're feeling negative it can be hard to even see the good things. But if we just pause and savor even small good things we can increase their impact. Maybe your friend calls to say hello, a colleague gives you a compliment, or a flower grows from between cracks in the sidewalk. These are pretty cool things that can generate positive emotions for us if we let them. Here's a savoring activity if you need some help with this.
9. Capitalize on the positive things
To capitalize on positive experiences, show them or share them with someone you care about. “Show it” on your face or in your body language. “Share it” by calling, texting, or talking to someone about it. Just one word of caution, be careful about sharing your positive moments on social media, because "humble bragging" might make other people feel worse.
10. Practice gratitude
One more way to decrease negativity is to start a gratitude practice. When we regularly practice gratitude, it's easier to focus on the positive things and feel good about the state of our lives. Thats why writing gratitude notes or gratitude lists can be helpful. Once you've had a gratitude practice for awhile, your brain will start to get used to it and more easily notice things to be grateful for each day. That, in itself, is a good way to lessen negativity.
11. Try not to focus on the things you can't control
If you're feeling negative about something that you have no control over, you might be better off practicing acceptance and letting it go. We actually do have a lot of control over our lives and we can take actions to make ourselves feel better in lots of situations. But of course, there are things we can't change. Knowing when we need to just accept something instead of fighting it internally with negative emotions is key for maintaining our well-being.
12. Get creative
Creativity may be a good way to boost positive emotions. So if you're having a hard time with the thought or writing exercises above, try something more creative You could draw the things you're grateful for, cook for those you care about, or grow food to share with your community. Getting creative may be necessary to find the best ways to overcome your unique flavor of negativity.
13. Generate positive emotions
The broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions build our psychological, intellectual, and social resources. Basically, they help us be more creative, kind, and intelligent. So how do we infuse our lives with small bursts of positive emotion? The answer? Do whatever you can to feel more positive emotion. Maybe watch some cute cat videos, do activities you enjoy, or exercise. Finding ways to increase positive emotion is a good strategy to stop negative emotions.
14. Listen to music to dissolve negativity
Sometimes when we're feeling stressed, or angry, or other high arousal negative emotions, we just need something to calm ourselves. In these cases, music can be really helpful. I personally listen to calming music while I'm working to try to keep my stress level down.
Here's some music to help dissolve negativity:
15. Be good to yourself
Are you feeling negative because of things you've done to yourself? For many of us with self-worth issues, we unconsciously set ourselves up for to feel bad by putting ourselves in bad situations or interpreting situations as bad. By being good to yourself and reminding yourself about your positive attributes, you can reduce negativity. So just try using positive affirmations and thinking about your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
16. Explore how your smartphone contributes to negativity
17. Be negative too, when it makes sense for you
In my field, we talk a lot about how to feel more positive emotions and less negative emotions. But negative thoughts sometimes have benefits too. We can't just push them all away without some careful thinking. For example, sadness helps us tell others that we need their support. Anger can help motivate us to take action to correct injustice in the world. And anxiety can protect us from making mistakes that hurt us in the long term. We just have to be careful that we don't have these emotions out of habit. Instead, we need to choose the emotions that help us achieve whatever we desire.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.