The “negativity bias,” or, bad feelings are stronger than good.

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The “negativity bias” is a well-recognized psychological phenomenon: people react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good.

For example, within marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. With money, the pain of losing a certain sum is greater than the pleasure of gaining that sum.

I know this from my own experience. I remember, for example, that hitting the bestseller list with Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill thrilled me less than a bad review of that book upset me.

Research shows that one consequence of the negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts are wandering, unoccupied, people tend to begin to brood; the negativity bias means that anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

I’d noticed this about myself, long before I heard about the negativity bias. To counter that effect, I’d invented the idea of the “area of refuge.”

Once, when I was back up at Yale Law School to teach a seminar, I wandered around a newly renovated wing. I noticed a sign by an elevator, declaring—to my astonishment—that the area was an “area of refuge.” I’m guessing it’s where a person in a wheelchair or with some other difficulty should go in case of fire.

The phrase stuck in my mind. Now, if I feel myself dwelling on bad feelings, I seek an “area of refuge,” a subject for my thoughts that calms or cheers me. No kidding, I often I think about Winston Churchill, and his great speeches.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.

Or I think about some of the funny things the Big Man has done. Years ago, he came into our bedroom in his boxers and announced, “I am LORD of the DANCE!” and hopped around, with his arms straight at his sides. I still laugh every time I think about it.

 

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.

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