The Power of Negative Thinking (and Four Ways to Stop It)
I once read a book by a so-called spiritual teacher who advised his students to avoid “negative people” at all costs. He wrote that when spouses drive together, if one is depressed, the other should spend 20 minutes trying to cheer him or her up. Let’s say it’s the wife who is suffering depression. If she remains depressed after 20 minutes, the husband should pull over to the side of the road and insist that the wife get out of the car. “Otherwise, her depression will infect you,” he wrote.
Heartless? Astonishing? Sure, dumping a spouse roadside seems extreme and perhaps pointedly unspiritual, but science does back up the contention that negativity is contagious, and particularly, depression. In fact, experts call depression “the common cold” of mental health. A study at Notre Dame a few years ago bore out this idea when college students took mental health assessments before moving in with new roommates.1 Those who started out in fine mental health but who had to share quarters with a depressed roommate developed symptoms of depression at twice the normal rate. They didn’t necessarily feel more hopeless or develop more self-loathing—in other words, severe clinical depression didn’t spread—but they caught a negative thinking pattern from their negative-thinking peers and developed some depression symptoms, even if they started out as Zig Zigler poster kids.2 (If you’re a Millennial and the name Zig Ziglar doesn’t ring a bell, think Dan Schawbel or Patrick Schwerdtfeger.)
While there’s some evidence that positive thinking is also contagious, experts agree that for the average person, negative thoughts tend to trump positive thoughts. Marketing experts have long known this fact. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shoppers were asked to rate products independently.3 After the shoppers heard negative reports by other shoppers, their own assessments shifted. If they had liked the product they rated in the first place but heard that other shoppers gave negative reviews, they tended to shift their own reviews toward the negative. And if they gave a negative review to start with, hearing other negative reviews made them shift their rating to yet more negative. On the other hand, those who started out with a negative rating were not influenced by positive reviews. Incidentally, this opens up another door to negative thinking. Studies have shown that you don’t need to be sitting in a car with a depressed person to “catch” their depression. Depression spreads just as happily through social media.
Obviously, this phenomenon has huge implications for businesses that depend on social media. A few bad reviews can destroy a business that also has a few positive reviews. It’s the negative reviews that stick in the mind of the average consumer. Experts say the phenomenon can be traced to prehistoric times, when people had to be constantly alert to danger in order to survive.4 That need to avoid deadly danger evolved over the eons to a tendency to put more energy into avoiding negative experiences than into enjoying positive ones. As author Rick Hanson, who wrote Buddha’s Brain, puts it, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”5
In fact, according to Psychology Today, the amygdala in the brain, which is the center that processes emotions, “uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. Positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds in order for the transfer from short-term to long-term memory.” That may be why in the English language, 62 percent of the words denoting emotion have negative associations, while only 32 percent describe happy emotions.
Here’s the dilemma. Science underlines the reality that we’re hardwired to be negative thinkers, and yet research makes clear that positive thinking is critical to health, happiness, longevity, and even to wealth. You’ll find numerous articles on the benefits of staying positive in the Baseline of Health archives as well as in Jon Barron’s book Lessons from the Miracle Doctors (see the chapter “The Thought That Kills”). In fact, nearly every self-help book on the shelves will urge you to stay positive, but willpower alone will not transform your downer brain. Take heart, though, you can dethrone the negative-thinking god that rules your brain, but to do so you need to understand the principles of neuroscience. Here are four important thoughts to keep in mind:
- One thing that does not work is telling yourself (or someone else) to just chipper up and get happy. Research at Michigan State University shows that giving a negative thinker instructions to get positive will usually backfire. The brain rebels! Study author Jason Moser writes, “[Evidence suggests that negative thinkers] have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.” So much for affirmations—at least as commonly practiced!
- Choose positive friends. It’s kind of a no-brainer if you buy the premise that negative thinking can spread from person to person. As we mentioned earlier, there is evidence that happiness is contagious. This does not mean you should toss your down-in-the-dumps buddy out the Corvette door on the high-speed freeway if he keeps complaining, but if he’s always depressed you might want to expand your circle of pals. Even the college roommate study cited above found that when subjects shared rooms with people more optimistic than themselves, they did in fact improve their own outlook. Likewise, a more recent study of 2000 high-school students cited in The Atlantic found that subjects who had plenty of upbeat friends halved their risk of falling into depression in the first place.6
- Work to build positive brain pathways. The theory of neuroplasticity tells us that what you think actually does affect brain chemistry. The tendency toward negative thinking builds negative neural pathways in the brain, and our brains are overrun by these negative pathways. You can’t erase them, but by paying attention to positive things, you can actually steer the mind in a new direction. This differs from trying to implant positive thoughts by using affirmations, because affirmations are oppositional—again, as commonly practiced. In other words, they deny what you already feel. You feel you are powerless, so when you repeat the affirmation, “I am powerful,” your negative brain circuits go haywire.
The trick, the experts say, is to create new neural pathways without challenging the existing pathways. By paying more attention to positive experiences as they transpire, you create new, positive pathways in your brain. One way to accomplish this is by writing down three to five positive things that happen each day. As noted above, the brain dismisses positive experiences unless you think about them for at least 12 seconds. It takes those 12 seconds for the brain to transfer positive experiences from short-term to long-term memory. By writing positive experiences down, you make sure you get in those 12 seconds and implant the positive experience in a place in your memory where you can access it later. Another way to get to the same end is to write down three to five things you feel grateful for.
- Another way to counter the dominance of negativity is to try mindfulness meditation. This means observing where your mind wanders and bringing it back to the present moment, over and over. This keeps the brain from running down its accustomed negative pathways and instead helps it dwell in a neutral, receptive place. Research at Massachusetts General Hospital found that after eight weeks of daily mindfulness meditation practice, subjects developed more brain plasticity, as indicated by more gray matter in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory, and less gray matter density in the amygdala, associated with reduced stress.7
There are lots of other ways to enhance positive thinking, from trying neurofeedback to exercising more. In fact, studies have shown that exercise beats drugs when it comes to depression. The important principle, though, is to accept that you need to work on cultivating the positive because, for most people, it doesn’t come naturally and to realize that simply wishing to be more upbeat won’t get the job done.
- 1. “Depressive Thinking Can Be Contagious.” 24 April 2014. Time. 18 May 2017. http://healthland.time.com/2013/04/24/depressive-thinking-can-be-infectious/
- 2. http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/50316.Zig_Ziglar
- 3. “Negativity is Contagious, Study Finds.” 7 October 2007. Science Daily. Reprinted from University of Chicaco Press Journals. 19 May 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071004135757.htm
- 4. Williams, Ray. “Are We Hardwired to Be Positive or Negative?” 30 June 2014. Psychology Today. 19 May 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201406/are-we-hardwired-be-positive-or-negative
- 5. http://www.rickhanson.net/books/buddhas-brain/
- 6. Beck, Julie. “How Friendship Fights Depression.” 19 April 2015. The Atlantic. 19 May 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/how-friendship-fights-depression/401807/
- 7. “Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in eight weeks.” 21 January 2011. Science Daily. 19 May 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110121144007.htm