Caption: Cats are the key to happiness, but if you’re allergic or something, try developing a positivity bias.1
Negative events are almost universally more interesting to us than positive ones.
The other day I saw a murder case TV special about a psychopath killing a nice woman. Ugh. After it was over, I felt angry and sad and wondered, “Why did I just watch that? What benefit did that provide me?” And then I wondered why murder-centric stories—fiction and nonfiction—were so popular on TV.
Why do I never see any TV specials about a happy family that has had dinner together for 20 years?
We think a happy and conflict-free scenario is too boring to watch, but something as terrible as murder is fascinating. Why? WHY?!
I don’t believe our fascination with negativity and murder means we’re all sick people, it just points out our biological negativity bias. The human default (or “autopilot”) way of perceiving the world is negatively charged.2 Most of us have experienced this: Have you ever let one minor negative event or offhand comment ruin an otherwise fine day? It’s easy to do.
In daily life, the negativity bias is rarely beneficial to us. In theory, the primary benefit of negativity is enhanced problem solving. By focusing more on the negative aspects of your life, you could conceivably fix more of them, but we don’t fix problems by focusing on them, we fix them by focusing on the right processes. Besides, our lives will always contain positive and negative elements (aka problems), so it makes most sense to focus on the positives. The idea that you’ll somehow be able to extinguish all of your problems and have a perfect life is fantasy. It will never happen. Recognizing the always-present flaws of a human life is neither a pessimistic or passive idea, it’s a freeing idea that lets you enjoy your imperfect life instead of insisting it be something that can’t exist. Thus, the negativity bias often only serves to make us unhappy when we could be happy.
Positivity might not make for good TV, but it sure makes for a more enjoyable life. To choose positivity, you must be intentional. “Perception autopilot” is what I call it when a person makes no effort to alter the way they perceive the world. They will almost always feel the full weight of their troubles as their blessings go unnoticed.
We can (and should) purposefully and strategically decide how we will perceive our lives. Here’s how to do that (and develop a positivity bias).
Two Ways to Develop a Positivity Bias
Defeat the negativity bias by zooming out. Did you get cut off on the road? Did she say something hurtful to you? Did you sprain your ankle? Whatever your problem is, it will almost certainly be irrelevant in every way within a week if not by the day’s end. Self-contained situations like a rude comment in your direction are actually irrelevant the moment you decide they are. Zooming out to the entire context of your life just makes it easier to do.
To zoom out your focus, think about how the negative issue will affect your life in a week, a month, or a year. By seeing problems in this context, you’ll find that 99% of them aren’t nearly as bad as they first seem, and most of them aren’t even a problem at all! Zooming out will lessen the grip of negative thoughts in your mind.
If something is negative and long-term, zooming out might not help. In such a case, acceptance is crucial. In the same way that all humans must accept imperfection to be happy, you must accept your long-term problems to be free of their reign over your mind.
Create the positivity bias by focusing on the good things in your life. Once you’ve weakened the negative, it’s time to find the positive things around you by considering your immediate environment. What are you fortunate to have right now? If you can’t find much to be thankful for right now, you can once again zoom out to find something else to be excited about. Maybe you have an event to look forward to. Maybe your prospects for the future are good. Maybe you have a great set of friends or a loving partner. Try to think of one at a time instead of evaluating your life as a whole.
The positivity bias isn’t about pretending that you don’t have problems. It’s not about being in denial. It’s actually about having a more realistic view of your life. Since our brains are biased toward negative things, we tend to place an irrational and not-useful amount of focus on them. Balance your thinking and celebrate the positives. That might be the way to happiness you’ve been missing.