Happiness and Neural Wiring

October 28, 2013

A client asked me the other day why she focuses on the negative stuff more than the positive stuff.  I’ve heard this question a number of times over the years.  We notice that our spouse didn’t empty the dishwasher as promised but don’t really notice that they did a whole bunch of other helpful tasks.  The constructive criticism in our annual review somehow seems much LOUDER than the praise.  Since we’re all so eager to be happy, why on earth do we overly-notice and harp on the very things that make us unhappy?

The short answer is – we’re wired that way.  It’s called the negativity bias.  Since the caveman days we’ve been honing our ability to see danger in the environment so that we can fight it or flee it and keep on being alive.  Our brains are now really good at scanning for threats.  The problem is, we’ve gotten so good at it that we now not only notice the bear that might attack us, but also the guy who might be annoyed at us, the people in the audience who don’t seem to be liking our speech, or that coworker who might be putting the moves on our partner.  Threats!  Not to our lives, but to our ego, our reputation, or our relationship.  And what do you do with a threat?   You isolate it and take care of it.  Isolating it means focusing on it (and losing sight of the big picture.  Sound familiar?).  Taking care of it might mean learning to people please, or joining Toast Masters, or planning some strategic PDA at the next office party.

So are we doomed?  Is there no getting around millions of years of neural wiring towards negativity?  Of course not!  In fact, you’re probably already doing a lot of things to combat it, since you are happy, positive, and maybe even optimistic sometimes.  Stay tuned for next week’s post!