Do you feel like you’re never quite out of the woods? Not exactly drowning, but certainly not cruising either. Like there’s always a bunch of problems, lurking just around the corner, waiting to be addressed.
If you’ve ever looked forward to a vacation for weeks only to realize the peace you’d hoped to find isn’t there, you know what I’m talking about. Or maybe you’ve raised all hell to finish a big project, to push a huge boulder out of the way, and yet still woke up in a cold sweat the next day.
Well, despite how it feels, you’re not alone. You’re not the victim of a grand, cosmic conspiracy and other people don’t have fewer troubles than you do.
Thinking our problems follow us around is a feature that came in the box; a trait we all share. And it’s especially pronounced in smart, self-aware people.
Scientists call it negativity bias. It’s our tendency to assign disproportionately large value, attention, and meaning to everything negative in our lives. UPenn researchers Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman broke this bias into four parts:
- Negative potency. If you had to rate your happiness after finding $50, you’d likely rate it lower than your unhappiness after losing $50. This has to do with loss aversion, a concept discovered by Daniel Kahneman. It’s not as simple as saying one is twice as powerful as the other, but it’s there.
- Steeper negative gradients. When you have to pay a $1,000 bill in a month’s time, you fret more and more about it the closer the deadline gets. In comparison, your excitement rises less when you expect to get $1,000.
- Negativity dominance. If that $50 loss and find happen on the same day, you’ll likely go to bed thinking about the loss. In a mix of equally positive and negative events, our perception of the whole skews towards the bad.
- Negativity differentiation. Adversity often requires more thinking and is, thus, conceptualized in more detail. Psychology has increasingly focused on negative emotions and most languages have more words for them too.
Negativity bias is why we taste a tiny bit of sour in a sea of sweet, why it takes couples five positive interactions to neutralize one spat, and why we stress over one bad review in 50 great ones. It may drive us nuts today, but, for thousands of years, it’s how we survived. By spotting the bad before it kills us.
Over the last few centuries, however, particularly the last 200 years or so, our environment has evolved much faster than our brains ever could have. As a result, we’re now stuck with an outdated version of human perception. Our challenges haven’t disappeared, but their nature has changed faster than ours.
The logical response, then, is to tone down our negativity bias. If fewer events threaten our survival, there’s less reason to view them as potentially such.
For example, a lot of people might think their being perpetually broke is a big problem. But when more than half of all Americans are, that’s actually just the norm. Clearly, you can live with little savings for years and, in most cases, nothing drastic will happen. This isn’t to advertise being broke or to say you have to like it but to show you: it’s not really something worth stressing about. Especially not all the time and especially not if you’re working on it to change.
The habit we need to live this new, calmer version of reality, this less slanted version of the truth, is controlling our perceptions. This is an ability most people don’t even know we have. But we do. We can hit the pause button before negativity bias takes hold. We can ask: “What do I want to believe?”
It’s the old Stoic adage: You can’t control all that happens, but you can control how you think about what happens. This isn’t just a great filter to process life’s challenges through. In fact, it’s the only real solution.
Outside events hold no power over us in and of themselves. Maybe, they affect our bodies. Or our possessions. Or our time. But never our minds. Whatever impact they have on our well-being is impact we have afforded them.
Life is. Reality is. It’s all subjects and verbs. We’re the ones with the adjectives.
That’s what ‘problem’ should be. An adjective. Not a noun.
Life is only made of situations and how we look at them. Nothing else. Our brains may have evolved to favor the stuff that scares us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change. That’s what neuroplasticity is for. It just takes practice.
Your problems will only truly disappear once you stop viewing them as such.
If you really want them to go away, you must learn to see straight. To control your perceptions. Because in any situation, you can. And only those, really.
Limiting your negativity bias won’t make your life all sunshine and rainbows. But those problems following you around? Most of them will just fade away.