Seeking happiness, joy, and fulfillment is a natural and evolutionary byproduct of your spirit progressing toward ever-increasing levels of expansion and awareness. Life, however, inevitably contains pain. When you become triggered by painful events, you experience mental and emotional turmoil. Negative thoughts and emotions feel heavy, dark, and burdensome. This collapses your awareness into defensiveness, anger, gloom, and worst-case scenario thinking.
For most people, negativity is something that passes with time, like a ship sailing through fog. But negativity can be much more problematic and insidious. Chronic or compulsive negativity of this kind can trap you in a kind of thought and emotion “prison,” tainting every aspect of your life experiences. Instead of allowing the negativity to flow through you and pass away, you get caught up in an emotional rip current.
This chronic negativity can take a huge toll on your life, relationships, happiness, and health. Escaping the prison of negativity should be considered a high priority for your long-term well-being.
When you are confronted with physical threats or threats to your ego and self-image, your body reacts defensively and you get scared. That fear is interpreted as a negative feeling, sensation, or thought.
Where Does Negativity Bias Come From?
The regular activation of these defensive responses has led to what neurologists refer to as the negativity bias. This means that, in essence, our brains are evolutionarily predisposed to look for, and focus on, negative experiences. As psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. explains in his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, the brain is sticky for negative experiences but nonstick for positive experiences. This is because your ancient ancestors always had to be on the lookout for danger or threats to their survival. In prehistoric times, if you were always on guard for what might go wrong, you had a much better chance of surviving to pass your genes on to your offspring.
Even though modern life doesn’t regularly throw the average person into life-threatening situations, the negativity bias still colors your interpretation of the world. Rather than seeing what’s going well in your life, you fixate on what isn’t going well and anticipate more bad things happening in the future. To make matters worse, you may even seek out things that are going wrong as a form of confirmation bias, or looking for evidence of your negative personal narrative. You can begin to seek out the negative, find it, and use it to fortify a negative worldview filled with resentment, cynicism, and a loss of faith in humanity.
How can you escape the tricky, evolutionarily built-in tendency to be negative? Here are a few suggestions that can help you break out of the prison of negative thinking.
Meditation affects your perceptions and reaction to negativity in several key ways.
- Meditation expands awareness. Awareness is the first step in escaping obsessive negativity for the simple reason that you can’t get out of prison until you recognize you’re there in the first place. Expanded awareness helps you see more clearly when you’ve become trapped in a negative feedback loop.
- Meditation allows you to witness your thoughts rather than react to them. In this witnessing state, you can see that you are not your negativity. It doesn’t own you. Just like any other thought or sensation, it arises, persists for a time, and then fades away.
- Meditation plugs you into the field of pure awareness. Imagine a place that is so pure, so immaculate and wholesome that it purifies and sanctifies everything it comes into contact with—that is pure awareness, Sat Chit Ananda, or eternal bliss consciousness. This is the state you dip into every time you meditate, even if for a split second. According to Vedanta, when you meditate it’s as if you are scrubbing a dirty cloth in a stream of pure water. Each time you scrub away another stain until the cloth is perfectly clean. In the same way, no amount of negativity can withstand the purifying power contained in the field of unbounded consciousness.
2. Interrupt the Pattern
Negative thinking is a cyclical, self-sustaining process. Negative thoughts are sticky; they glob onto other thoughts of a similar frequency and tone gaining speed and momentum like a snowball rolling downhill. To escape negative thinking, you have to step out of the loop. To do this, find hard-stop pattern interruptions—do something that causes a sudden, and complete, shift in consciousness.
- Go outside for a brisk walk
- Splash cold water on your face
- Move your body through some stimulating yoga poses such as sun salutations
- Try an energizing breathing exercise, such as balanced breathing—inhale and exhale for an equal count of 4 or 5 seconds
- Use a mantra: Mantras are powerful to interrupt the negative internal dialogue that fuels negative thinking. Silently repeat a positive mantra like “I am emotionally free,” or “I am happy and healthy” or “I feel strong,” or something that best resonates with you, so that the intention is customized with what you need.
Once the pattern of negativity has been broken, it becomes easier to substitute it with more positive and uplifting thoughts and emotions.
3. Minimize Exposure to Negative Stimuli
It’s important to make a conscious effort to avoid negativity to the greatest extent possible. You must be diligent in policing your own awareness. You have to deliberately decide what you will put your attention on. Commit to cutting or limiting the following things from your routine to minimize your exposure to negative influences:
- Watch the evening news
- Engage in hostile political discussions
- Participate in heated comment threads on social media
- Watch gratuitously violent films or television programs
- Avoid relationships or individuals who harbor a negative attitude. Negativity can be contagious and those who are caught in its grip often want company to reinforce their beliefs.
4. Practice Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude is one of the most powerful tools you have to re-write the negative programs that run in your mind. Negativity is always about fear and lack. With its focus on abundance and well-being, gratitude is negativity’s polar opposite. It dissolves negativity by shifting attention away from what you don’t have, what might go wrong, or other grievances to all that you do have, and everything that’s going right in your life.
This is also what Dr. Hanson calls taking in the good. He points out that it can take consistent practice to re-tune your mind to deliberately look for those good things in your life that are often taken for granted. Once you make this switch, you begin to see goodness, beauty, and happiness everywhere you look. Taking regular inventory of the abundance of your life creates a new feedback loop that overwrites your previous negative conditioning. Now you can look for the good and find it, supporting your beliefs in a safe, happy, and fulfilling world.
Commit to these steps for one month. With regular and committed practice you’ll soon find the role negativity plays in your life greatly diminished, opening the door to expanded happiness and fulfillment.
Slow down and tune into the joy that surrounds you with Deepak Chopra and Chopra Center master educators at our signature yoga and meditation retreat, Seduction of Spirit. Learn More.