Focusing on Negativity

Let’s now start getting to know the various types of unhelpful thinking that people do. The first one is what I call “focusing on negativity”. This is a very common type of unhelpful thinking and is an important one to understand as it may contribute to one becoming depressed.

In one’s day-to-day life, one faces various events. Some of these events may be “positive” (e.g. one has been told that there will be a salary increase at work) and others may be “negative” (e.g. one has lost one’s expensive mobile phone on the same day as the salary increase).

Unfortunately, one’s mind may excessively focus on negative events while mostly ignoring positive events. In the example I gave, the person may excessively focus on the negative event of losing the mobile phone, while mostly ignoring the “happy” event of having a salary increase. This type of negative thinking can make one feel that things are worse than they really are as positive events that could have countered the negativity are ignored. I call this type of negative thinking, “focusing on negativity” (psychologists will call it the “negativity effect”).

A more “helpful” way to think would be to see both the positive and negative events in a more balanced way. Perhaps thinking, “Yes, it’s upsetting that I lost my expensive mobile phone, but on the brighter side, I got a nice salary raise at work”.

It is possible that the human brain has an inbuilt tendency to think in negative ways. This tendency may have been inherited from our ancestors from many thousands of years ago when they would have lived in forests. In such an environment, one’s survival would have depended on “remembering” negative events. For example, imagine that one of our ancestors was daydreaming and walking without a care in the world, and then accidentally stepped on a tiger’s tail.

If our ancestor survived the ensuing chase, it would have been in his or her survival interest to not forget the negative event of stepping on a tiger’s tail. By focusing on this negative event, our ancestor would have kept remembering the importance of not daydreaming while walking in the forest! While nowadays most of us don’t walk amongst tigers and other dangers in forests, the tendency to focus on negative events may still persist in our brains.

Here is a more modern example of the “focusing on negativity” type of unhelpful thinking.

Joe was to take an early morning flight, but unfortunately, because he forgot to set his alarm, he left very late for the airport. At the airport, the ticketing personnel conveyed the sad news to Joe that he had missed his flight. But luckily for Joe, a sympathetic senior manager of the airline felt sorry and issued a free ticket to him for a flight leaving for his destination just a few hours later. While waiting for this next flight, Joe only focussed on the negative event of missing his flight, rather than also taking in the positivity that the free ticket for the next flight gave him. He kept telling himself how unlucky he was to have forgotten to set his alarm clock while downplaying the good fortune he had of having a sympathetic airport worker who was able to help him in a big way. The excessive focus on the negative event made him unnecessarily feel very sad about his situation.

As you can see, to prevent unnecessary sadness, it’s important to recognise when you are excessively focusing on negative events. As I mentioned before, Happy Thinking is about dealing with such unhelpful thinking. Once we have gone over the common types of unhelpful thinking, I will share with you tools that you can use to deal with such thinking.

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