Is your negativity bias holding you back?

By Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP

The alarm goes off in the morning. You may think:

(a)   I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

(b)  I am super excited to start the day.

Most people, whether they are conscious of it or not, think (a) “I didn’t get enough sleep last night” as they hit the snooze button for eight more minutes of sleep. In fact, it’s a thought like this that causes an action of inaction, which keeps you staying in bed, missing your workout, and being late to work.

Further, this thought of “not enough” is the first in a slew of negative, scarce thoughts that continue all day long, usually ending with “I haven’t gotten enough done today” as they hit the pillow to go to sleep at night.

Sound familiar?

Psychologists call it “negativity bias” – the research-based notion that we are wired to focus on potential threats – the “what if something bad will happen next” type of thought that has an adaptive purpose in the era of survival. (Think saber tooth tiger potentially around the next corner in the woods.)

But for those of us looking to thrive, we can learn to recondition our often default thinking onto a more positive path, thereby influencing our energy, immunity, sleep, and even success. (Think Olympic athlete as she prepares to go for the gold.)

Louis_MeditateHere’s where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is “A mental state of calm awareness of the present moment, marked by acceptance, openness and curiosity toward your thoughts and feelings, rather than judgments of them.” (Bishop, Lau, et al, 2004)

When you recognize scarce thinking, you may think:

(a)   There you go again, you negative nelly.

(b)  Isn’t that fascinating that I am so conditioned. Thankfully, I can rewire.

This awareness of the present moment is what mindfulness is all about. To that end, mindfulness is a way of being in the world – not yet another way to improve yourself, not another item for your to-do list, and not just meditation. No one is exempt from doing the work to develop a mindfulness muscle. It takes practice.

Badass researcher Dr. Ellen Langer, the first woman to be granted tenure in the Harvard Psychology Department has been studying mindfulness since the 1970s. One book called “Counter Clockwise” highlights some of her research that shows mindfulness can help us increase vitality and even reverse the aging process.

Langer suggests we take up a creative class that can bring out attention to detail as we learn a skill (like painting or knitting) which focuses our attention in a particular way and for a sustained period of time where we base one step on the previous step, thereby adapting what comes in the present moment to what will happen next.

She says, “When people are mindful, they are open to generating new ways of looking at the world and are not controlled by routines and habitual ways of observing . . . the simple process of actively drawing distinctions.”

Our lives are written so by routine. When was the last time you took a new route to work in the morning?

I encourage clients to take mindful walks. The next time you walk to the coffee shop, put your cellphone away and focus on feeling the full strides of your feet on the ground. Or, do the dishes mindfully. Instead of thinking about what you “should have done earlier” or what you “need to do next,” just be with the dish for a minute and feel the full sensations of warm water suds on your hands.  These types of slight shifts in how you normally run on default mode will strengthen your mindfulness muscle.

And it’s true – with extensive research to back it up – that meditation is a great practice to build mindfulness for the same reasons it focuses our attention. If you think you don’t know how to meditate, you can learn and if you think you don’t have ten minutes a day to meditate, then you need twenty.

It’s a simple concept: we construct our reality (our experience of the world) in large part by where we put our limited attention. (How many of you feel a little ADD these days?) More often than we recognize, we can make choices consciously and intentionally thereby getting more of what we want in life: more health, more wealth, specifically:

  • Decreased anxiety, stress
    • Increased heart-rate variability
    • Increased immune response
    • Activated pre-frontal cortex – which allows your best, most creative thinking.

Or, how about peace? Teacher Tich Nhat Hanh says, “Through mindfulness, we can learn to live in the present moment instead of in the past and in the future. Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world.”

The world needs peace right now. The world needs you to increase your mindfulness. So, thank you for practicing and building your mindfulness muscle (but don’t say “no problem” because that ‘aint mindful.) When the alarm goes off tomorrow morning, take a slow and low cleansing breath and remember to express gratitude for another day to be alive.

This is a guest post by Louis Alloro, a founding partner at The Flourishing Center and Director of the Philadelphia, PA cohort of the 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) program that will begin in March. For more information on the program, visit www.certificateinpositivepsychology.com.

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Image Source: Louis Alloro screen capture from TODAY broadcast

Article References: 

Baumeister, Roy F.; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D. (2001). “Bad is stronger than good” (PDF). Review of General Psychology 5 (4): 323–370.

Bishop, R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S.,Carlson, L., Anderson, N., Carmody, J., Segal, Z., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D. & Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice V11 N3

Langer, E. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Ballantine Books.

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