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Why we perceive things as worse than they are…and how to stop it

Why we perceive things as worse than they are…and how to stop it

Our minds can be our own worst enemy when it comes to happiness, because of its propensity to negativity, a tendency to brood on the bad more often than delight in the good.

A 2001 review of psychological literature gave numerous examples of studies showing that negative events have more impact than positive events in our lives, and that information about bad things tend to sink in more thoroughly than information about good. ((Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good.)). Negative things grab our attention more powerfully than positive things (e.g., Pratto & John, 1991 ((Pratto, F., & John, O. P. (1991). Automatic vigilance: The attention-grabbing power of negative social information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 380–391.)) ), which is why you’ll rarely see a positive news headline on the front page of a newspaper.

Even when we form judgements about people, we tend to see their bad qualities as something intrinsic to them, while being more likely to ‘brush off’ their good deeds as a result of outer circumstances (e.g., Vonk 1994 ((Vonk, R. (1994). Trait inferences, impression formation, and person memory: Strategies in processing inconsistent information about people. European Review of Social Psychology, 5, 111–149.)) ).

Positive things are more common than negative things

However, this preponderance of negative thought is not necessarily based on reality. Indeed, there is evidence to show that positive things happen much more frequently in our lives. One study asked participants how often a list of eight positive (e.g., “A friend, romantic partner, or family member complimented me”) and eight negative (e.g., “A friend, family member, or romantic partner insulted me”) social events had occurred in the past week. Participants reported that the negative interactions occurred an average of 5.9 times and the positive interactions occurred an average of 19.0 times – a ratio of 3.2 positive events for each negative event. ((Gable, S. L. (2000). Appetitive and aversive social motivation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.))

Why is the mind so negative?

Numerous theories have been put forward as to why we allow negative events and feelings to occupy such a prominent place in our inner life. One obvious one is that it is part of our evolutionary programming, and that in our animal past we had to respond quickly to negative threats as a matter of survival. Another reason may be that negative events stick out more simply because they are not as common as the positive ones.

So…how do we restore the balance?

One way suggested by The Jewels of Happiness author Sri Chinmoy is to realise that this negative thinking is ultimately depriving us of the happiness we seek:

When a negative thought comes, we have to feel that it is a thief. A negative thought comes in the form of doubt, fear, jealousy, hypocrisy or meanness. We have to feel that each negative thought has come to commit a theft, to take something away from our inner life and inner wealth… What do we do when we see a thief? We chase him away and we do it with utmost confidence. We do not allow the thief to stay, because we know that we are the master of the house. ((by Sri Chinmoy, from the book The Soul’s Evolution, made available to share under a Creative Commons license))

Another powerful way to regain a proper mental perspective is by a regular practise of gratitude, and there is increasing experimental evidence that this practice can have profound effects on well-being. One study compared people who kept a journal where they noted down things they were grateful for on a weekly basis, against others who recorded hassles or neutral life events. The participants who had a gratitude journal tended to exercise more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week. (Emmons and McCullough 2003 ((Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. (link to pdf) )) )


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