I recently realized, after yet another day of my children arguing with each other just to stave off boredom, that I was walking around with my jaw clenched up tight. This was my default, even as my roses were blooming and the early summer weather could not have been nicer.
The past three months have been tough on everybody — but even in less stressful times, humans are prone to fixating on the negative. It makes sense; threats must be dealt with. But life has good moments too, and consciously choosing to see them, and really enjoy them, can change the experience of time. Often it’s as simple as noticing, “I am not unhappy now.” The noted moment can then be savored, rather than disappear.
Negativity bias is a well-known phenomenon in psychology. Adults spend more time looking at negative images than positive ones; they pay more attention to negative information when making decisions than positive information. Multiple studies find that infants have the same wiring; when their mothers convey fear about a toy, babies are less likely to play with it. This tendency to note the negative is no doubt how babies survive to become fearful — but living — adults.
These days, of course, no one needs to look far to find bad stuff. In the American Psychological Association’s annual poll on stress levels, the general rate for spring 2020 was significantly higher than the same time last year (5.4 vs. 4.9 on a 10-point scale). Nearly half of parents (46%) rated their coronavirus-related stress landed between eight and 10 as people managed virtual learning, their own economic worries, and a general sense that the world is falling apart.
Psychologists have long studied how resilient people cope with negative events — like a pandemic, or its economic fallout. But a few researchers have started to study the flip side of this: how some people manage to derive the maximum possible…