Erin Kelly, the Social Justice Editor of the Good Men Project, is concerned about the increasing negativity we all are experiencing in our lives and in our world.
“Work, home and family can be stressful,” she says. “It can be so stressful that we feel like we’re swimming in a sea of negativity with no lifejacket. At night, we come home to read about the latest criminal, drug deal, terrorist attack or social injustice in our newspapers. We often turn on the nightly news, just to be flooded with more negativity. It’s almost as if negativity lurks at every turn–like it’s waiting to poison our minds and seep into our souls.”
As a psychotherapist, specializing in gender medicine and men’s health, I work with men and women whose lives are impacted by the stresses of negativity. We all want to be safe and we are on alert for dangers, but sometimes the fear of what might happen is worse than the actual events of our lives. I help people understand how negativity impacts our lives and what we can do to keep negativity from killing us. Here are some important things I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful.
Understand That Our Negativity Bias Kept Us Alive.
We often shame people who see the world through dark-colored glasses. “Why are you always so gloomy,” one of my clients said to her husband. “You never look at the positive side of life. You always expect the worst. What’s the matter with you?” I’ve heard similar things from men complaining about their wives. “You always worry about what can go wrong,” another client said to his wife. “You’re always a wet blanket any time I want to try something new. Can’t you ever just feel positive about my ideas?
Clearly some people are more optimistic than others. But when we look back on our evolutionary history, we see that there was an advantage to those who focused on the negative. If there was a disturbance in the bush, the hunter who assumed it was a lion and ran, survived. Even if he was wrong 9 times out of 10, it was better to worry needlessly than be wrong once and become the dinner for a predator. Throughout human history those who stayed alive passed on their genes. They were often the ones who were the most negative and fearful. All of us living today are the descendants of those with a negativity bias.
Our Minds Are Hard-Wired for Negativity.
Research from the emerging field of “affective neuroscience” demonstrates that our brain is hard-wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. Our brains evolved to keep us alive, not make us happy. As neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “When the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else.
Our Brains Are Velcro for the Negative, but Teflon for the Positive.
Our brains seem to be wired to glom on to the negatives in our lives and our relationships, while the positives easily slip away. Over time we seem to be inundated by negative memories while the positives are forgotten. When we watch T.V. or listen to the news, the good things in life seem to slip quickly out of our consciousness, while the crises and tragedies get replayed over and over in our awareness. Dr. Hanson suggests that we are Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive. It’s a good description.
Try Taking a Break From the Media and Listening to the Sounds of Nature.
We’ve become hooked on media. We watch T.V., follow the latest events on our smart phones. Since our brains are sensitized to the negative, that’s what the media gives us when they want to capture our attention and to sell us something that will make us feel safe or comfortable. You’re not likely to find much positive news on commercial media. Nature is full of beauty, peace, and quiet. Go for a walk in nature. Sit and listen to the goodness. Feel the joy of being alive.
If You Want to Be Happy Look Out the Window of Positivity.
I think of life as having two windows. When we look out of one window we see all the positive things going on in the world. We see people helping others, people resisting war and committing to peace, new discoveries that reduce pain and increase love in the world. When we look out of the other window we see wars, violence, hatred, death, and destruction. There certainly are both windows to the world. I have a rule of thumb. There are some negative things that I feel are important to address. I am actively working on such things as gender justice and reconciliation between conflicting parties, economic localization and reducing our impact on the environment, and reducing levels of violence in the world. If I’m not actively doing something to make things better in that area, I don’t spend time wanting to know about it.
I trust that other people have an interest in dealing with those issues that I’m not working to improve. This way I don’t get hooked in worrying about all the things that might go wrong in the world, but feeling powerless to do anything about them. I spend most of my time looking through the window of positivity and seeing all the good things that are being accomplished.
It’s also good to remind ourselves that we’re all going to die sometime no matter what we do or don’t do. So we might as well do what we can, where we are, with what we have, in the time allotted to us. I trust that the rest will take care of itself.
I’d Rather Be Rich and Healthy Than Sick and Poor.
I grew up believing that in order to make a good living, we had to exploit others. Only poor people were good. I also learned that getting sick was the price you paid for working hard. As a result I dealt with a lot of illness in my life including ADHD, Bipolar Disorder and depression. But if you believe, as I do, that our deeply felt beliefs can influence our future, I choose to be rich and healthy, rather than sick and poor. I’ve come to realize that we don’t have to be controlled by our brains. We can change our belief away from disease towards health. We can also minimize the negatives in our lives and be open to all the goodness that life has to offer.
Originally posted on MenAlive. Reposted with permission
Photo Credit: newelly54/Flickr