Why Do We Skip Over Praise And Focus On The Negative?
A reminder that the "size" of good and bad is all in our heads.
My husband was going through some papers the other day, trying to put our taxes together.
He texted me from his office. Mixed in with some old paperwork, he found one of my first annual reviews from Wall Street.
He told me that in my review, my first boss (we’ll call him Bill) thought the world of me. Apparently I spearheaded a big project that did incredibly well. Bill gave me credit for that project, and agreed that it was great.
I remember none of that.
Granted, the review is over 15 years old. But do you know what I remember about Bill? Working with him almost four years later. When he had dangled a promotion in front of me for months without ever giving it to me. About how he didn’t flinch when I told him I found a job elsewhere. After working directly for and traveling with him for 12+ hours a day for years. And then Bill’s later firing from our giant investment bank a short period later for a scandalous reason. (That had nothing to do with me).
Not only that, but as soon as my husband mentioned Bill, I couldn’t bask in a positive moment from the past. The mention of Bill brought back all the negative memories of him, and few of the good ones.
Why do the negative thoughts feel so much bigger?
Why does the negative seem so large and loud? And the beautiful happy moments seem like tiny little anecdotes. That job ended with more drama that I wanted, but I learned a lot from Bill. He was a brilliant man and taught me many skills that I still use to this day. He was supportive of me for a long time. Why do I only remember the last 6 months of bad after 3 1/2 years of good or great?
According to Stanford Professor Clifford Nass in the New York Times, we need “more thinking” to process our negative emotions and experiences than our positive ones. Basically, we chew over the unpleasant events for much longer than the good ones. So they feel bigger in our heads.
I’ve thought about, ruminated over, and told the story of the end of my job with Bill far more times than the rest of the 4 years. And so, that’s what I remember.
But it’s not telling the full picture of what went on in the past. And more importantly, I’d like to remember all the nice wins that I had today at some point in the future.
Is there a way to change the size?
In the article Bad Is Stronger Than Good by Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky, they suggest proactively taking the time to think about the good things. And even more, they believe that because bad things are stronger than the good things:
the ratio should be at least five goods for every bad. Likewise, individuals can make an effort to recognize and appreciate the goods that they have — celebrating each small success, being thankful for health, and having gratitude for supportive others.
I’m not sure its worth painting a rosy picture of a job that ended over 10 years ago at this point. But it’s something to think about going forward. There are many uncertain elements in my life right now, and I’m sure there are in yours too. So I spend a lot of time thinking through, chewing on, and ruminating on all the negative parts. The stuff that could go wrong. The things that already happened that I could have done better. All the while giving my positive experiences a soft pat on the back and sending them on their way.
Can I flip that?
I’m not sure that I’ll go as far as a gratitude journal (although it’s great to know that there is a science behind those things). But writing down a few good things each day will help solidify them in my mind. We’re all in complicated phases of life, for different reasons. Mine includes work and kids and family and ownership and friendships and obligations. It’s easy to run 1,000 miles an hour and only stop to think about what could go wrong, which ball I will drop next. But I want to more intentional about my thoughts. As a way to change the size, change the focus.
Today, I’ll remember the good things too. As I write this, I realize that an old startup client just got funded. They called me up out of the blue on Thursday and paid me a bonus for a job well done that I completed months ago. It happened two days ago and I had already put it out of my mind. I enjoyed the news while I was on the phone, overflowing with gratitude. And then minutes after I hung up, it became tiny, tucked into a drawer, while the unknown of how I will do on a new client project looms large.
When I take a minute to focus on the good things, those negative possibilities recede from view. If only for a moment. Interesting.
And the best thing of all, and one of the easiest to take for granted. The cow-licked, gap-toothed 8 year old who walked into my office just now and gave me the biggest morning hug in the world. It happens every day. But one day he’ll be too old, too cool to hug his mom. I don’t ever want to forget those hugs because they’re easy right now. And negative memories or future worries should never feel bigger or more important.
What easy wins have already left your mind? Can you remember them, write them down? How will they change the size of what you remember in the future?