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Overcome Negativity Bias — How to Become a Positive Person with These Three Gratitude Practices

According to Wikipedia:

The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, refers to the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes.

More bluntly, we’re all at risk for thinking things are bad when they’re actually good.

When I was growing up, my family had a “three nice things” rule. If we said something about someone, we then had to find three nice things to balance it out.

“Carey is stupid. But she’s got all her hair, doesn’t smell bad, and is honest.”

It didn’t quite change my mind about Carey. But there was a hint of a good idea there.

#1. Gratitude journals has a Write Three Positive Things group where, as the title says, every day a few hundred people write down their positive memories of the day.

Here’s an example:

You’re changing your narrative about each day and your life overall.

For example, it’s impossible to say that your day was all bad. There were always at least three exceptions.

#2. Daily Compliments

One of the main approaches to animal training is to shape new behaviors with positive rewards.

For example, when I trained my dog to shake my hand I started with a large book on the floor and then went through the following sequence:

  • Treated him for looking in the direction of the book.
  • Then for coming closer to the book.
  • Then for accidentally stepping on the book
  • Then for intentionally stepping on the book
  • Then for stepping on the book with my hand underneath
  • Then for pawing at the book with the book raised by my hand
  • Then for pawing at the book with me holding it
  • Then for pawing at my empty hand without the book
  • Then for letting me hold his paw after he pawed my hand

My dog doesn’t speak English, so this gradual shaping and reinforcement is how I guided him into the behavior.

Unsurprisingly, many people have tried this with their spouses. (See What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage in the New York Times.

About ten years ago, my partner suggested we try it. We call it Two Good Things. Every night I tell her two good things either about her or my day. And she does the same.

You could say that we’re trying to shape each other. But the flip side is that what we say shapes our own beliefs.

Every time one of my self-improvement projects leaves a huge mess in the house, her eyes will go wide, and I’ll ask, “I’m still a net positive, right?”

Most people’s negativity bias would lead them to say no. But our Two Good Things practice leads us to say yes.

#3. Annual Review

Every year has dozens of great moments that somehow slip from your memory.

You had a great night with friends, saw a great movie, launched a project you’re proud of, went on a weekend trip, etc.

There’s lots to be proud of. But none of these events are easy to remember.

So write them down. And if you start now, you’ll look back on your year and eventually your life and say that you absolutely lived well.

I’ve followed this practice for nine years:

  • Fill out the list as part of an annual review.
  • Shoot for 52 good things per year.

So now I have a list of 470 of my favorite moments from the last few years. This list is a powerful weapon against every other negative feeling about success or how I measure up against other people.

In fact, I just reread the last batch and my mindset completely changed from “things are fine” to full Kanye West, “My life is dope and I do dope shit.”

Thank you for reading, thank you even more if you try one of these gratitude practices.

And I reserve the ultimate thank you for anyone who responds with their own gratitude practice.