negativity bias

Hijack your Brain for Happiness

The human brain has an annoying feature that can barricade our path to experiencing more happiness. It's called the negativity bias, and it is our brain's default mode.

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The negativity bias causes negative experiences to be "stickier," and we remember them or pay attention to them more often than positive experiences. Do you remember the last time you went out for dinner? It may have been a great meal with great people, but the server forgot to bring your lemon water. Now all you remember is how the dinner would have been so much better if only you had your lemon water.

Because of the negativity bias, humans tend to pay more attention to negative emotions. But just because this is our brain's default mode, it doesn't mean we can't override it! We can increase our "net" positivity by paying more attention to positive experiences and less attention to negative interactions. Now, this does not mean avoiding negative feelings or difficult situations, which ultimately results in greater unhappiness.

I remember when a co-worker criticized my work several years ago behind my back to our boss. Instead of talking to her about it, I unfriended her on Facebook and complained about her to my husband. I never did address the situation, and despite all the good times we had together when I think about her now, years later, the backstabbing incident is the first thing that comes to mind. But it was me who didn't take the time to get the full story or even hear her side of the situation.

Negative emotions give us important feedback about ourselves and how we behave in certain circumstances. With this information, we can accept and work through our negative feelings faster and in turn, build resilience, compassion, and experience higher well being. Avoiding negative emotions leads to an increase in stress and anxiety and decreased physical health. Happy people have a wide range of emotions. They are just better at not getting stuck or ruminating in negativity.

Counteracting the negativity bias is possible, but it takes consistent practice. Here are a few ways to override the negative circuitry and pay more attention to the goodness that comes our way:

  1. Prioritize positivity. What makes you happy? What activities do you love doing? What do you wish you had more time for? Are you spending more time cleaning the house or visiting with friends? So often we spend our day doing the stuff we tell ourselves we "have" to do and not what we want to do. Carve out time in your week to do the things you genuinely love.

  2. Adopt a curious mindset. When someone or something upsets you, take a few moments to be curious about the situation instead of automatically reacting. Be curious about why the situation is triggering. Do you know all the information? Are you filling in the blanks with your own story? When we look at the big picture, it helps us regulate our emotions better, which in turn increases our resiliency.

  3. Practice gratitude. Do you tend to look at life through the lens of scarcity or abundance? Identify and pay attention to the plenty of good things in our everyday life, instead of just recognizing the injustices that you perceive have been committed against you. By doing this, we build up our positive interactions and emotions which can help disrupt or minimize the negativity bias. The more you can adopt an attitude of gratitude, the easier it becomes to identify happy moments throughout the day and in turn, amplify the positive emotions associated with them.


Even by having the awareness that our brain's default mechanism is to pay more attention to negativity, we can be more conscious of the idea that we can hijack our mind. As we pay more attention to positive interactions and experiences, we build resilience, compassion, gratitude, joy, and happiness.