When a new year arrives, it is supposed to bring with it a sense of hope and optimism. We make “resolutions” to lose weight, exercise more, live life more in the real world instead of the virtual one. We make lists and personal vows to enhance achievement. However, this is nothing new and most of us get discouraged quickly as we recall past failures and other new years that resulted in little change.

Authors John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister have some suggestions that might help. They’ve written a heavily researched book entitled, “The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule it.”

In a recent The Wall Street Journal article, they outlined some of the highlights of their new book.

They suggest a different kind of resolution for 2020: Go on a low bad-diet.

Our lives are often biased by an imbalance that is just now being understood by scientists: The Negativity Effect. It’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more than positive ones. A single criticism can be devastating, but untouched by praise. One hostile person is the focus of attention instead all those with friendly smiles. While there is definitive proof that life is improving for people around the world, we tend to focus on the barrage of bad news that is magnified by the digital world.

But Tierney and Baumeister say it’s possible to override “our innate negative responses, break destructive patterns, make smarter decisions, see the world more realistically and also exploit the benefits of this bias.”

The negativity effect was discovered in the last two decades as social scientists grew interested in several patterns. “Psychologists studying people’s reactions had found that a bad first impression had a much greater impact than a good first impression, and experiments by behavioral economists had shone that a financial loss loomed much larger than a corresponding financial gain.”

How did negativity gain such a strong foothold on the human psyche? Through much research, the authors have found that our brain’s negativity bias evolved because it is a survival mechanism. “On our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who passed on their genes were the ones who paid more attention to threats (like poisonous berries or predatory lions) than to the good things in life. This bias is still useful-one mistake can still be fatal-but what worked for hunter-gathers doesn’t always work for us.”

Over time, the public has learned much about psychoses and depression, but very little about the mind’s resilience and capacity for happiness.

The book delves deep into how this has happened and it is well worth reading. Among other things, the authors reference the study of “the positivity ratio.” That refers to the number of good events for every bad one. Researchers noted that most older people are typically more content than younger people because they’ve learned how to control this ratio in their lives. In other words, they’ve gone on “a low-bad diet.”

It’s an approach that can work for people of all ages. The authors have offered a few strategies to help this happen:

1. First, do no harm.

Most of us pride ourselves on the good things we do for family and friends, or for doing that little extra for clients and customers. However, it seems that what really matters is what we don’t do. Avoiding bad is far more important than doing good. You know why. You get very little credit for doing more but pay a big price for falling short.

For example, psychologists have found that by tracking couples over time, success of a marriage depends on the frequency of negative interactions and how they deal with them. In successful marriages, people overlook spousal flaws and maintain what researchers call “positive illusions.” They de-escalate potential conflict by giving their spouse the benefit of the doubt or by responding calmly. In marriages that fail, spouses assume the worst and respond with anger.

Minimizing the negativity is also crucial in business. Angry customers can have a disproportional impact, as evidenced by online reviews. The same is true in the workplace. Research into the varieties of “bad apples” has shown that “the performance of a team depends not on the average of its members’ abilities but rather on the ability of the worst member.”

2. Remember The Rule of Four.

Many studies have shown that a negative event or emotion usually has at least three times the impact of a comparable bad one. To counteract this, the authors suggest we adhere to Rule of Four: It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. The authors admit this is not a universal law but simply a useful gauge of well-being and progress. In other words, plan on at least four compliments to make up for one bit of criticism.

3. Put the bad moments to good use.

Instead of letting a setback sink your ship, look for a useful lesson. The upside of the negativity effect is the power to teach and motivate. Penalties are usually more effective than rewards to spur employees to improve.

4. Capitalize on the good moments – and then relive them.

One of Mark Twain’s more memorable characters, Pudd’nhead Wilson, said, “To get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with.”

Psychologists have labeled this “Capitalization.” It means that one of the best ways to become happier is by sharing good news, but only if the person you share it with responds enthusiastically. Sharing good news makes it more significant and more likely to be remembered later.

Thinking about nostalgia was long thought to be a sign of depression, but researchers have found that nostalgia is not only a good way to appreciate the past but also for brightening the present and future. Apparently, one reason happiness increases beyond middle age is that older people spend more time savoring good memories instead of worrying about the happenings today.

5. See the big picture.

By all accounts, almost every measure of human welfare is improving. That is, except one: Hope. In other words, the better things get, the gloomier our view. As found in international studies, it is the wealthy who are most pessimistic, and the worst informed. In recent decades, the global rate of poverty has declined by two-thirds, but most people in affluent countries think it has remained steady or gotten worse. Also, in fact, crime has fallen measurably in the U.S., but most Americans believe the opposite is true based on what they see on their screens.

By minimizing the negative and accentuating the positive, the authors believe it is possible to overcome the negative bias that skews politics and public opinion. Follow The Rule of Four. Find at least four uplifting stories for every bad one.

You’ll find much more to celebrate in 2020 if you look for long-term trends instead of viscerally clinching with every horror story of the day. As the authors conclude their article, they point out that “the average person in America and the rest of the world will in all likelihood become healthier and wealthier. Those who go on a Low-Bad Diet will also become wiser-and happier, too.”

Provided by MDB Communications, a Capitol Communicator sponsor.

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