How To Reduce Negativity

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In one sense, the battle to be happy is a battle against negativity.  Bad things happen all the time but how we internalize them, how we react to them, is what ultimately determines their final effect on us—and over that we have simultaneously more and less control than we realize.  More, because we assign the meaning of events, not the events themselves, even though it feels as if that meaning is somehow assigned for us.  Yet less, because we can rarely simply decide when confronted with a negative life event that is is, in fact, actually positive.  To do that, we have to find a way to actually believe it, and that requires a process of continual self-reflection and attitude training; a program designed to strengthen our life force, so to speak.

And a willingness to attack our negativity at its root.  Though we all have negative selves, there seem to be only two basic reasons they appear:  one is as a result of a lack of self-confidence, or belief that we can solve a particular problem; the other is simply out of habit.

Habits are defined as actions that occur automatically in response to specific triggers, or cues.  Such cues can be external (arising from our environment) or internal (arising out of our own thoughts and feelings).  We bite our nails, for instance, when we feel nervous.  We shut off lights upon leaving a room.  Or we complain when things go wrong.

Complaint, in other words, often comes streaming out of our mouths without our conscious awareness.  We actually become conditioned by previous repetition to think pessimistically when obstacles arise.  We just don’t realize that by allowing ourselves to focus on the negative, to be negative, that we dramatically increase the likelihood that we’ll continue to do so—which then often prevents us from mustering up the confidence we need to see an obstacle as a challenge and actually surmount it.

So what can we do to break this cycle?  If our negativity stems from a habit and not a genuine lack of self-confidence, we can, in fact, extinguish it like any other habit:  by vigilant self-monitoring.  While studies show the best way to overcome temptation (for example, chocolate) is by avoiding it altogether, they also show the best way to break a bad habit is noticing each and every time we do it and consciously making ourselves stop.  Interrupt yourself in the act of nail biting enough times and eventually you won’t have to think about it:  your hand will cease to rise to your mouth of its own accord.

Similarly, when negative statements reflexively come out of your mouth, notice it and interrupt yourself, even if mid-sentence.  Eventually, the automatic impulse to be negative will fade.

Unfortunately, however, no shortage of triggers of negativity will ever exist.  For this strategy of thought stopping to work long term, therefore, would likely require us to consciously monitor ourselves indefinitely—which, for most of us, would likely be far too exhausting.  The solution to this problem may be to not only consciously interrupt our negative thoughts but to consciously substitute positive ones so that we’re not just aborting a bad habit but programming a good one—one that with repetition over time may eventually become as automatic as the one we’re trying to abolish.

Next WeekLiving Alone

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  • Alex,

    Thank you for another thoughtful post that brings value. I believe I first heard the following statement from @leeaase but he has told me it’s not his quote.

    “The Solution to pollution is dilution.”

    While Lee was talking about the few “less than splendid” on Twitter I’ve begun to use this line in the classroom. My adult students love it.

    It’s so easy to begin to complain with the rest of our society. I’ve learned so many leadership lesson from my Friends on Twitter. I chose to interact with only the positive ones. This is one very clear way I can chose to fight back my negative thoughts.


  • Thanks for the reminder. I find it very true in my own life. Self doubt leads to self pity and then it is down hill from there.

  • Absolutely. I, for one, have benifitted enormously from this approach.

  • What is “negativity?” I mean, I think I know it when I see/hear it and I’m sure you know what you meant when you wrote this essay, Alex, but this is one of those words that slips around depending on who is using it.

    Is it negative to point out that a boat has sprung a leak, even though it is a beautiful day and the passengers are having a good time? Most people would say no. But if you see conditions in life that are analogous to a boat leaking, perhaps leaking in a way that only someone who knows a lot about boats can detect, and other people are unaware of the leaking, maybe even disinclined to hear about leaking at all, is it negative to point it out?

    My thoughts are colored by the kinds of experiences I have had, of course. People who want to do the right thing by their children are often defensive about the choices they make. If you do not join the candy drive, for instance, you are “negative.” Or a company initiates a new software program that tilts the field away from customer satisfaction and toward bean-counting. If you point that out, you are being “negative.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many, many groups in this culture regard a failure to conform as “negativity.”

    It seems to me that it’s important to distinguish between negativity that amounts to personal laziness (e.g., the system stinks and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket) and what is often perceived as “negativity” but results from clear sight and commitment to do the best one can against forces that may be too powerful to resist (e.g., free speech means little when only corporations with money can make themselves heard).

    But maybe neither of these variants is what you wrote about. Could you clarify what YOU meant by “negativity”?

    rdp: By negativity I don’t mean the pointing out of flaws or mistakes. I mean a tendency toward pessimism, toward believing we have no power to correct those flaws or mistakes but can only complain about them while remaining passive. The tendency to accept a narrative of defeat.


  • Ah… interesting. Negativity-as-self-defeatism. A very different kettle of fish! Thank you.

  • So the answer to negativity is ignorance? Thanks for that.

  • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Alex.

    I’d like to add to the definition, if I may: the tendency to accept a narrative of drama. I know this first hand (having grown up in an alcoholic environment), and from others. Habitually pushing life’s situations to a crisis level drains people. It’s incredibly negative. And it stems from the same lack of confidence you mentioned.

    I feel fortunate to be aware of this tendency in myself and in others. My life is moving in a far more positive climate and direction than ever before!

    Thanks again!

  • “So the answer to negativity is ignorance?”

    John, where on earth did you get that from the blog?

  • I completely agree that negativity is rooted in a lack of self-confidence in certain areas of one’s life and which can become habit forming and simply spread to other or all aspects of ones life. However I don’t believe you ever choose to be negative out of habit unless you lack self-confidence in at least some aspects of your life.

    Breaking the lack of self-confidence and you break the habit of being negative. Gaining self-confidence is easier said then done. That is why I so agree with you suggested route for breaking ones negativity habit—that is, simply notice it as it comes up and just choose to behave otherwise if only for the reason that you are tired of being so negative. Then in the future if the same or similar situation arises again you will remember that you stayed positive and you got through it which in turn gives you self-confidence that you can do it again. Eventually you are self-confident in those situations and give up being negative.

    As to what constitutes being negative, I would say it simply is a person who constantly kvetches about being lost.

  • How to reduce negativity? You could start with a smile. And keep smiling. It really does lift your mood, help you stay calm and make you feel less pessimistic. Focus on acceptance and gratitude for what is good about whatever has happened to make you feel so negative and fearful. There is always something. I truly believe this. At the beginning of last year I had an SAH which turned my life upside down. Thanks to swift attention, new treatments and skilled doctors I am alive. Thanks to family and friends I have been helped to make a good convalescence. Yes the journey back to health is hard and there are days when it almost seems easier to be fearful and pessimistic because somehow that seems like a rehearsal or preparation for facing the worst should it happen. Well, today something did happen. I heard I may need yet more treatment because things aren’t quite right yet. And you know what, after giving myself time and permission to feel very negative indeed, I consciously reminded myself that anxiety grows out of negativity and anxiety is very bad for the physical body and the spirit. And so I smiled and focused again on my gratitude list. You are right in your final paragraph, Alex. With regular attention negativity is a habit which can be broken…though it might be easier to have something less life threatening to practice on! And by the way, you are on my gratitude list as I love your posts and always find them timely and useful. Your “One Event, Two Stories” last week rang too many bells for comfort but then I remembered that all my hospital experiences have helped me hone this be positive skill and a smiley upbeat person is much nicer to be around than a gloomy pessimist. Win win all round.

    Anna: Glad to hear you enjoy my posts.


  • Alex,

    Good post…but I would argue that interrupting oneself midstream is easier for those that do not have ADD.

    I have meditated on it, tried to establish cues and can have success many days in a row and then a bad day. The monkey mind goes into high gear and I struggle with the ruminations.

    Maybe for some of us it will never be….

  • A very important post for me, as pessimism and negativity are habits of mind I have been conditioned to since infancy; and in my seventh decade, there’s a lot of conditioning to be undone, thought by thought.

    For me the solution to what amounts to automatism is mindfulness (perhaps why Buddhist approaches have long appealed to me). That’s essentially how I translate what you’re saying: be mindful, so that when the negative appears in its automatic form, there is time and space enough to recognize it, and to recognize that I have the capability to make a decision, to judge it, and to decide whether or not to accept it as true/useful/self-determined, etc., etc. So, mindfulness brings both power and freedom in its train.

    Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones time after time doesn’t work for me. I’m not able to imagine a good to replace the bad with! Fortunately I have found that simple mindful recognition and mindful decision are sufficient to produce the same result, that is, a (very gradual) change in habitual orientation.

  • Alex I agree, however a simple approach to seeing this is just sitting—let the negative thoughts arise whilst being mindful.

    The origins of all our suffering is the our ignorance, desire and hatred.

    Please feel free to check out the origins of suffering buddhist path.

    peace to all,

  • Interesting blog.

    Do you believe that happiness should be self-induced and independent of the environment?

    Do you believe in acquired (learned) optimism?

    Do you think happiness and optimism are the same in that a person who is happy is also an optimist and vice versa?


    Vusa: Internal happiness is a requirement for the enjoyment of happiness derived from externals. Optimism absolutely can be learned, but it’s not at all the same thing as happiness. Yet it’s hard for a pessimist to be happy.


  • Alex,

    I want to congratulate you on writing a post that is so thought provoking it has given me the opportunity to learn from you and those who also value your writing.

    I appreciate you and your views greatly and this is why I read your blog.



    Lisa: Many thanks. It’s great to have you here.


  • I think I’ll take a print out of this article and give it to one of my friend who really needs to read this at least 10 times everyday because she’s always up with negativity! One must look at brighter side of life because life is not suppose to be taken seriously, why not enjoy even the bad times????

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  • Alex,

    Great post, thank you. I think the crucial point is the first one you make: “we assign the meaning of events.” Shakespeare said: “Nothing is good or bad except our thinking makes it so.” And in Paradise Lost there’s a line about how your mind can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. Nichiren also writes about there not being “two lands pure or impure in themselves, the difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.”

    I think our values, our self-esteem and the overall “soundtrack of our minds” decide whether an event is “bad” or not. The “narrative of defeat” (or victory) as you so eloquently put it. I remember when Boy George was sentenced to clean the streets of NYC, the judge said it was up to him whether he “saw it as a lesson in humility or in humiliation.” Christopher Reeve is another great example of someone “reframing” a “negative” event. And Nelson Mandela saw his imprisonment as “28 years preparing to be President.” So in and of themselves, and even though they don’t feel like it at the time, all events (even paralysis and imprisonment) are NEUTRAL; ultimately we ourselves choose to see them as good or bad. (BTW, this does not mean we should live in neutral or have no values or extinguish our desires, as they are the springboard to enlightenment.)

    As for changing a “bad” habit, the crucial thing I have found when I coach people is to get your emotions on board, not your logic. Emotions (energy in motion) drive action and repeated actions become habits. If you are very emotionally excited about fitting into your bikini, you won’t even see the cream cakes in the shop window, let alone want to grab one. Emotional reward works much better than willpower or the feeling that you are “giving something up.”

    I love this Buddhist guidance (from Linda Johnson I think), which reminds us that we all have and will always have both fundamental darkness and Buddhahood:

    “All life at every moment inherently contains two opposing forces or functions. A bright, enlightened, confident, powerful side and a delusional, negative, dark side. These are the two powers in life. No human being is missing either one. This is the nature of life. It will never change. There is no enlightenment in Buddhism that is not the by-product of facing adversity head-on, walking through it and transforming it into something of greatness.”

    I have been chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo for 26 years and am learning to see every “problem” as a gift in disguise. (Sometimes a quite heavy disguise:-)

    David (Leicestershire, UK)

  • Hi Alex
    Just… Thanks 🙂


    Ken from Denmark

    Ken from Denmark: You’re most welcome.


  • Thanks for this post, Alex. I’ve been working hard at my negativity for many years but have had greater success recently after seeing a therapist. I’m not by nature a negative person but have been married to one for more than twenty years which cumulatively had influenced my internal dialogue. I was fighting his negative thoughts by internally arguing with them. This made me continually angry. It wasn’t until I accepted that they were HIS thoughts and because of issues that HE had to overcome and NOT MY thoughts. I didn’t have to take ownership of his negative thoughts and when his negative thoughts started to create a negative mood in him, I would try to shield myself against these moods by having a positive internal dialogue with myself. I’ve also learned that I decide if I want to stay in this situation and that if I see that it is unmanageable, I am strong enough to leave and thrive. Since I have learned this, I can speak up for myself more and he is less negative towards me.

  • I’m a walking testament to the importance of this post. I spent my life focusing on the negative and suffered chronic clinical depression. After I learned that changing my thoughts could decrease my depression, I began practicing stopping my automatic negative thoughts. I substituted positive thoughts and my depressions lessened and my life became infinitely more enjoyable. It isn’t easy and it takes practice, but it can be done. The changes this produced in my life have been enormous: I am more open to new thoughts and ideas and less quick to judge, and I have more confidence, feel more resilient, and attract other positive people. I have become a happier, more peaceful person. As cliched as it might sound, Eric Idle got it right when he sang, “Always look on the bright side of your life…toot toot toot toot toot toot toot toot!”

  • My Mom is really into a philosophy of life that involves extreme “realism” and the way she describes it makes it seem like an excuse to be negative. It is hard to go the other way when you get that message from your mom for most of your life, but I do believe she has an error in her thinking that makes her think being negative is more accurate and that she must always strive for 100% accuracy…but I don’t think she would agree with your post so I am most tempted to forward it to her just to be a troublemaker! Thank you.