Kids are hardwired to be negative. We all are. Back in our early evolution, there was so much detail and information in our environment that we focused on the negatives…the threats. No point focusing on the beauty of a sunset only to be mauled by a sabre-tooth tiger while you’re at it. It was a case of survival of the most negative.
This attention to negative details is what psychologists call, the negativity bias. It has helped determine the success of our species, but it has also helped lead to the epidemic of negative talk, depression and doom fatigue that we experience in the 21st century.
What do we know about the negativity bias and how it is affecting children?
As we have further evolved and predators and physical threats aren’t as common, we have still maintained our vigilance in identifying negatives. Our modern threats come in the shape of other people, our relationships, our emotions and challenging tasks like exams or performances.
- When we meet new people we immediately assess whether or not they are a threat. Studies show that we look for negative traits in others and even focus on faults in their appearance. We expend a lot of brain activity processing those negatives and much less attention and brain activity on positive features. When we think about other people’s actions, we are much more likely to attribute negative motives to people than positive motives. We are naturally suspicious.
- We experience negative emotions as more powerful than positive emotions. This means we hold on to hurt much longer than joy. Think about that for a minute. It’s sad. When positive and negative emotions are combined the overall experience becomes negative. So, your child had a pretty good day at school. She got a good mark in maths and had fun with friends at lunchtime, but after school she posted a selfie and only 43 people liked it. She felt humiliated and it became a bad day. Humans naturally lack perspective, especially some of our adolescents.
- It is interesting to know that we have more negative language than positive language when describing emotions. Try it yourself. Ask your child to write down all the positive emotions they can think of and then the negatives. The negative list is likely to be longer. The problem with this is, thoughts are trapped in language. To think positively, we need to have positive words. This means that we can conceptualise negativity more easily than positivity.
- The closer we get to negative experiences the more negative they become. This potency change is not the same with positive emotions. For example, the closer your child gets to an exam the more frightened they get. However, a party getting closer doesn’t increase their excitement at the same rate.
All of this negativity is depressing…obviously. We are naturally negative and this is reinforced by the negative version of the world that is constantly fed to us by the media. It seeps in daily. The big question for me is why are we not more distressed? Why don’t we wake up and cry? Well, fortunately, there are two phenomena that keep us sane.
Does it always have to be this way?
Just because we have evolved as negative little doomsayers, doesn’t mean we have to stay that way. Psychologists have identified two factors that can save us from ourselves. Professor Lea Waters is a psychologist and president of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). She says that the keys to overcoming negativity are emotional contagion and the elevation effect.
Emotional contagion means that we are able to catch positive emotions from others. If there are positive people around you, you are more likely to be positive. When someone smiles at you it actually takes effort not to smile back, even if they are a complete stranger. All of those motivational memes and cute cats in your newsfeed might actually be keeping you sane. Of course, negativity is contagious too. So we have to choose to be in the company of positive people and sometimes turn off the news.
The elevation effect is the theory that we are inspired to be better when we see other people behaving in positive ways. We can be inspired to be morally or physically better. Professor Waters uses the example of taking up running during the Olympics. Think also of the enormous positive impact of the recent cave rescue in Thailand. Twelve children and their soccer coach became lost and trapped in a cave after it flooded. The elevation effect was created by the rescue workers who came from around the world to help free the terrified children. The triumph of humans helping humans lifted us up as a species. We really do need heroes.
How can we be more positive?
Being positive is a life skill that we must teach kids. In her Melbourne Ted talk, Professor Waters tells us that, “Positive emotions broaden our capacity for thinking and they build our connection to other people.” They make us more resilient. Positive emotions give us social and intellectual resources that help us through bad times.
If we can help our kids be positive it is a gift that will serve them for a lifetime. So what are some things that parents can do:
1. Create rituals where you focus on the positive. My friend Jayne and her husband ask their kids every night at dinner, “What was the best thing that happened to you today?”
2. Teach kids lots of words for positive emotions.
3. Role model focusing on the positive instead of the negative. You don’t have to turn into an over-smiling crazy person, but aim for 60/40 positive to negative conversations at least. The talk in your house is a barometer for your kids. It tells them how safe the world is and what sort of future they can expect.
4. Schools can use programs like Professor Waters’ The Positive Detective Program
5. Read and share good news stories, they will lift you up as well as your kids. Did you know that the giant panda is no longer an endangered species? Or that scientists have created an Ebola vaccine that is 100% effective? Visit good news websites like these:
Some mainstream news companies now include a page of good news on their websites, like this one from the ABC
6. Practice gratitude with your kids. There is science behind the idea that even two minutes of reflection on the good things in our life can lift a mood.
Professor Waters says, “The more you see and share good, the more you want to see good.” It is self-perpetuating. In an era where we have the highest rates of depression and anxiety in our history, we owe it to ourselves, and our kids, to overcome the negativity bias and see the good.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.