Is Negativity Genetic?

I know the title is an odd question, and I’m 99.9999% sure that it is not. But there is a reason I ask that question.

Recently, I wrote a post called “Gratitude” based on the words shared by another blogger. Every now and then, I think about Marla’s concept, and still recognize it as being 100% true. Ask me what went wrong today (or any given day) and I don’t have to think long and hard before giving a list of things. Ask me what went right today (again, or any given day) and I need a moment to consciously look back to see if I can remember anything outstanding in that day that was awesome or filled me with joy, happiness, peace and/or contentment. Why is that?

There is some reason that many (most?) of us are more easily in touch with negative emotions than positive ones. I can easily look backwards to my parents and to my parents’ parents and not remember a time when there was an expression of true spontaneous joy, happiness, peace and/or contentment. Which is not to say that there weren’t momentary expressions of happiness – a good joke always deserved a good laugh, a much-desired wish list present at Christmas brought momentary joy, happiness and appreciation. But those are random moments, spontaneous and short-lasting. Think about it. That joke you laughed so hard at is likely one whose punchline you won’t recall tomorrow.

‘Experts’ call it negativity bias and define it as the psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information. Those same experts state that this negativity bias comes from our environment, handed down from the time when man and animal roamed the same land and lived in the same caves, making it necessary for humans to always be alert to potential threats around them. To me, it simply seems to imply that negativity is within our comfort zone and positivity requires us to move out of our comfort zone. But at least that theory might explain why we’re so comfortable in that negativity zone.

In my reading and researching about this pattern, this is some of the information I was given: Research suggests that this negativity bias starts to emerge in infancy. Very young infants tend to pay greater attention to positive facial expression and tone of voice, but this begins to shift as they near one year of age. Brain studies indicate that around this time, babies begin to experience greater brain responses to negative stimuli. This suggests that the brain’s negative bias emerges during the latter half of a child’s first year of life. There is some evidence that the bias may actually start even earlier in development.

Researchers also believe that we are all equipped with something called a negativity bias. The negativity bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise. Therefore, as humans, we tend to remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones, recall insults better than praise, react more strongly to negative stimuli, think about negative things more frequently than positive ones. Using myself as an example, I can admit to being exactly that person.

But there is another phenomenon that I think might be in play here. When something is traumatic to us and we share it with a loved one, while we may not get the nurturing we really want, we at least get some sense of sympathy from the person we are sharing with. But sometimes, when we share something of a positive nature, those same loved ones may tend to play it down to not really being anything to be joyous about. I’ve had occasion where I’ve wanted to do something nice to help someone out and was told, “Don’t bother, it won’t be appreciated.” In another instance, I was sharing something that was said to me that brought me a sense of happiness and was told, “Are you sure he/she meant it that way?” In both of those situations, the joy I was – or could be – feeling was negated by someone I trusted to have my well-being at heart. And while I could look upon those situations and realize that neither time were those comments made to hurt me, nonetheless they took the wind out of my sails.

Some scientists believe that, while perhaps not genetic, our brains are an integral part of how we process negative and positive stimuli. Studies that involve measuring event-related brain potentials (ERPs), which show the brain’s response to specific sensory, cognitive, or motor stimuli, have shown that negative stimuli elicit a larger brain response than positive ones. Because negative information causes a surge in activity in a critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviors and attitudes tend to be shaped more powerfully by bad news, experiences, and information.

Then, of course, the psychologists step in and suggest that the same brain that concentrates more on negative stimuli can also be retrained to change our thinking and fight against the tendency towards negative thinking. I can’t argue that point, but here is my general thought on it. We all know in our hearts that, if we want to change something about ourselves enough, we will put the energy into retraining our brains. Ask my best friend, who dropped over 100 pounds (slowly) and is keeping it off, not with any help from well-known diet systems, but through self-discipline and wanting to be thin more than she wanted that piece of bread that came with her meal.

We talk some about so many of the kids today having a strong sense of entitlement and we discredit the parents who give their kids what they ask for, who feel it’s more important for their kids to “like them” than to practice discipline as needed and appropriate punishment if required. But don’t we all have a sense of entitlement, if only realizing that we want the things we want to have to be easy to get, to not require time, energy, sweat, hard work and commitment in order to achieve the end results we seek. Do we, consciously or subconsciously, choose to live in the negativity simply because it requires so much from us to move forward to positivity?

I believe that is true for me. I focused on personal growth as a priority from my mid-40s to my late 50s. I was reading countless ‘self-help’ books, attending at least one seminar a month that would offer me insights on where and how I needed to grow. I was surrounding myself 95% of the time with peers who possessed a trait or attitude that I wanted to gain, hoping I could watch and emulate.

This whole subject is even more actively tickling my brain because two different bloggers have recently posted what I will choose to call “mantras” about how to be positive instead of negative. It seems like, without the threats that cave men faced, we should be able to train our brains in the same way in which they were trained to think negatively. Then again, we have threats in current times – perhaps not by large animals roaming the earth, but by humans threatening other humans. Anyhow, these are the two “mantras” I read recently:

I’ve made print copies of both of these and they are both attached to my refrigerator. I’ve been making myself stop to read each one of them at least once a day, though I suspect I’ll soon be able to look at them and be understanding of the concept without reading the words. I’m hoping this will be the start of changing my habit of thinking negatively (and it’s a strong one!) to thinking positively. Maybe it will work for you, too!