Positive Psychology in a Negatively Biased World


Dateline, Portland, Oregon—Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Nobody has seen a saber-toothed tiger in eons, yet we still behave as though they are out there. Why so negative?

I have a lot to thank my pre-ancestors for—generation by generation, they made the right decisions to land me here, in this moment, writing this post. And those who lived in perpetually hazardous conditions had to be particularly dialed in to the world around them in order to avoid a variety of dangers. The ones who heard the snap of a twig signaling the approach of a predator, or remembered the particular berry eaten by someone who keeled over and died a short time later had an evolutionary advantage. That advantage kept them alive to breed the same attentiveness into subsequent generations.

In today’s world there are no true saber toothed tigers and our berries come vetted by the grocery store, yet we remain preferentially cued in to the negative around us. Is it a survival mechanism? Not for most of us. Instead it provides us with an implicit bias to pay attention to things that distress us, rather than appreciating the positive in our lives.

How do you know if you are doing this? Here’s a common example. You have a day filled with the typical ups and downs—a nice conversation with a friend or co-worker, a pleasant walk in the evening, a good meal, a moment of irritation with a friend. What do you think about as you are winding down for the day? If you are like most people, you will focus on the negative event, playing it over and over in your mind, paying no heed to the pleasantries of the day.

I think it helps us if we can remember this is a bias that made sense from an evolutionary perspective. But what was an essential survival tool back in the day is, in fact, a common contributor to depressed and anxious moods in contemporary times.

Martin Seligman is a psychologist whose observations have brought us many important theoretical models, including the concept of learned helplessness. In the past dozen years he has turned his attention away from what makes us anxious or depressed, focusing, instead, on what contributes to emotional growth. In the process he has become the father of positive psychology. Seligman has developed many tools and techniques (well-grounded in research) that help people create and sustain a greater sense of well-being in their lives, principles I apply routinely in my clinical practice. One of his tools is particularly useful in helping us learn to savor the small, positive events of our day, pushing against our biological drive to preferentially attend to the negative ones.

This easy and most powerful tool is the simple act of writing down three things that went well during the day each evening before sleep. Doing so helps us shift our cognitive bias away from the negative and toward the positive. It is easy to do, and while it sounds simple minded, I have seen this small behavior positively impact literally hundreds of lives.

Want to give it a try? Put a piece of paper and a pen by your bedside. Last thing before turning out the lights, write down three things you appreciated about your day. Maybe your favorite tree is in bloom, or you had coffee with a friend, or your dogs were there to greet you when you got home—these things don’t need to be earth shaking (in fact, they very likely won’t be), your goal is to simply notice the small things and jot them down in a word or a sentence.

Seligman’s research indicates that people who do this for a two-week period learn to savor the positive events of life. Even when they stop keeping the list, they feel significantly better six months later than they did at baseline. But as I tell my students and clients, you are going to savor something—why not make it something positive? it takes ten seconds, so keep it up forever!

Rozen, P., Royzman, E.B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance and contagion. Personality             and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320.      

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T., Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation            of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.