Bad is stronger than good.
It really is.
Let me explain.
The things that mostly pull our attention are not the ones associated with positive situations, good vibes, favourable outcomes and calm moments.
Our mind tends to gravitate more rigorously towards situations or events that signal actual or imagined threats to our safety or status.
It can be the sudden noise in the kitchen interrupting the gentle bedtime story you share with your children, activating a cascade of negative thoughts.
Or the rumours about your employer considering layoffs, causing you much anxiety.
It could be the persistent cough that surfaced out of nowhere and has been bothering you for months.
Like a biological radar that is ultra sensitive to negatively nuanced signals, our brain has evolved to pay more attention (and latch more forcefully onto) what it perceives as uncertain, untested or unfamiliar.
To observe the interplay between positive and negative stimuli, and how the mind gravitates towards what it perceives as a threat, consider the following example.
It is Friday afternoon and you return home from work. You check your mailbox and see two envelopes/letters inside.
You go ahead and open the first one.
It’s a colourful postcard from a cousin residing abroad conveying his latest news about his recent promotion and his decision to get married. This cheers you up as you love your cousin.
Then you proceed to open the second envelop.
It contains a letter from the tax office notifying you of their decision to conduct an official investigation into all your business affairs.
The warm and cosy feeling evoked by your cousin’s heartfelt postcard immediately evaporates as your mind begins to spin ultra fast weaving various terrifying scenarios linked to the tax audit underway; and this despite the fact that no particular ill doings or “skeletons in the closet” come to your mind justifying you fearing such an audit.
Regardless of how justified your concern is regarding the tax investigation, insofar as the tug of war for attention is concerned, the tax audit signal wins the cousin’s postcard signal by a mile.
Finally ask yourself what is more likely to occupy your mind and evoke persistent emotions:
A positive remark by a good client on the speediness of your replies to them; or a demeaning comment from a manager about the way you dress every day at work; the latter will possess your mind overshadowing the former in a split of a second.
Our attention is skewed towards negativity.
The way we perceive and observe the world is neither linear nor logical.
Our perceptional, emotional and motivational structures have evolved to keep us safe.
The great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer aptly describes this dynamic using powerful imagery:
‘Just as a stream flows smoothly on as long as it encounters no obstruction, so the nature of man and animal is such that we never really notice or become conscious of what is agreeable to our will; if we are to notice something, our will has to have been thwarted, has to have experienced a shock of some kind. On the other hand, all that opposes, frustrates and resists our will, that is to say all that is unpleasant and painful, impresses itself upon us instantly, directly and with great clarity.’*
What does all of this have to do with us?
How can knowledge of our skewed perception of reality help us in any meaningful way?
It is true that bad is stronger than good.
That being said, we can strive to use this knowledge to our advantage.
By understanding how our mind works we can work towards expanding our self-awareness so as to avoid being unnecessarily and carelessly entangled in its unconscious workings.
By becoming more aware of what pulls our attention (often situations perceived as threats) and why (our negativity bias), we can plan and strategise more effectively as well as train ourselves to be less impulsive, reactive and reflexive.
By doing so we can adopt a radically open-minded approach and ultimately become wiser when navigating the uncertain terrains of life.
*Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics, 1973).