8 Science-Based Ways to Beat Negativity

What is negativity and how do you shift your mindset for more positivity?

Posted Jan 10, 2021 |

Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay
Source: Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

Negativity involves feeling sad, skeptical, and pessimistic. When our thoughts are shrouded in negativity, we can easily find the worst in any situation, even situations that objectively are not that bad. Because negativity makes us feel bad, it tends to be bad for our well-being (take this well-being quiz to see how you're doing).

If you find that you struggle with negativity, you're not alone. In fact, humans actually have a negativity bias. A negativity bias just means that we notice and feel negative things more intensely than positive things—and negative things have a bigger impact on our mental health. So that means we could experience a bunch of positive things but the one negative thing could ruin our entire day. If our thoughts are plagued by negativity, this can be especially true for us.

How do we stop feeling so negative?

Firstly, go easy on yourself. Remember, we are all negative sometimes and that's okay. Remember to have self-compassion as you're are working to shift your negative thoughts. But it's also helpful to know that our brains like to do things the way they have always done them. If we've been negative for a long time, regulating our emotions and shifting to more positive thoughts may be a little harder and take a little longer. Just keep at the strategies below to see improvement over time.

1. Make positive concepts more accessible in your brain

Our brains prefer to just go to whatever is familiar—it's easier, quicker, and requires less energy. So undoing negativity involves making positive concepts more familiar and accessible in the brain. One way to do this is to just have a "positive word of the day". Or, memorize a series of positive words each morning and ask yourself to recall them each night. 

Although the research hasn't shown that there are positive regions of the brain, per se, strengthening the connections between positive concepts and strengthening your ability to generate positive thoughts, words, and emotions can likely make it easier to do this again in the future.

Researchers have measured the emotional content of thousands of words to find the positive and negative ones. If you want to use the most positive of these words to reduce negativity, check out my positive word flashcard book

2. Deconstruct your negativity

When we feel negative, it can be easy to see the external causes of our negative emotions but not the internal causes. The truth is our thoughts have just as much (or maybe more) to do with our negativity than the situations we're in. We really do create our own reality.

To deconstruct how your thoughts lead to your negativity, engage in self-reflection by asking yourself if you do any of the things below:

  1. Do you often expect that everything will turn out horrible?
  2. Do you only see the bad without seeing the good?
  3. Do you ignore or devalue the positive things?

If you do any of these things, you can shift your thoughts in ways that decrease negativity and increase positivity. Use these questions when you're feeling negative to shift your thinking away from the negative and onto the positive:

  1. How could this situation turn out better than expected?
  2. What are the positive parts of this situation?
  3. Why are the positive things in this situation really important or valuable?

Forcing your mind in a new direction can help shift your emotions too.

3. Check your attribution style

Do you feel like nothing you do matters and the world is responsible for all your woes? Of course, this may be true sometimes, but this "external attribution" means we have given up control of our lives and this can end up making us feel worse. To shift this thinking, try to think of the things you do have control over. We all have control over some aspects of our lives.

Or, do you feel like you are to blame for all of your woes? This "internal attribution" style where we blame ourselves for the bad things can hurt our self-esteem and mental health. To shift this thinking, recognize that not everything is in your control. We all have done bad things, but we can move past them when we see that we did the best we could given the situations we were in.

Either of these attribution styles can be problematic when they go unchecked. So keep an eye out for them.

4. Generate positive emotions with your imagination

When we struggle with negativity, we get really good at imagining the negative things. This is why forcing yourself to imagine the positive things can help change these patterns. So give it a go and try imagining positive things. Imagine eating your favorite food, seeing your favorite person, or going to a favorite place.

5. Halt ruminative cycles

Do you dwell on the bad stuff, working yourself up until you've got steam coming out of your ears? We all do this from time to time, but it's rarely helpful and not actually good for our well-being. Still, stopping rumination can be hard. In fact, telling our minds to just "Stop!" thinking of something can often make us think of it even more. Instead, activate your body to stop the negativity fast. For example, you could go for a run or take a cold shower. These physical jolts to the body can force your energy resources to go elsewhere and really help stop a negative racing mind.

6. Practice gratitude​

Practicing gratitude makes it easier to focus on the good things and accept the bad things. We realize that things are not as bad as they may seem and it helps us stop negativity. To practice gratitude, you can try writing gratitude notes, gratitude lists, or gratitude letters.

When we notice these good things, it can also be helpful to savor them. Maybe your mom calls to check in on you. Instead of focusing on the things that annoy you, you remind yourself that she's calling because she cares and you savor that feeling of being cared for (easier said than done,  I know). Just keep trying until you find what works for you.

7. Do positive things

One of the easiest ways to feel less negative is to do things that make you feel less negative. Engage in activities that make you feel good—spend time with friends, go hiking, do crafts, or dance—whatever helps you feel less stuck.

On the flip side, try to stay away from activities that make you feel negative. For example, watch how much time you spend on your phone or social media. These activities can feel good in the moment but can increase negativity if we're not careful. Learn how to outsmart your smartphone to engage with technology in ways that help rather than hurt well-being.

8. Find ways to relax

When in doubt, just find ways to relax. Turn on some calming music, do some yoga, or try deep breathing. Finding relaxation techniques that work for us can be a great way to tamp down our stress response and hopefully get a hold of our negativity.

Created with content from The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.