The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary (2019) explores the surprising benefits of being an average Joe. From money to intelligence to relationships, it reveals the pleasures of being perfectly ordinary.
Key idea 1 of 8
Your brain is always searching for bad news.
Do you often find yourself focusing on what you don’t have? Imagine that you’re in a performance review with your boss. She praises your hard work, social skills, and professionalism. However, she also mentions that you sometimes lack confidence. And now the end result is you come out of that meeting feeling deflated.
You spend the rest of the night focusing on your shortcomings. But what about all the good things your boss said? Well, you hardly give them a second thought.
Here’s a question, then. Should you beat yourself up for focusing on the bad? Well, maybe that’s not your fault. The devastating truth is that evolution has primed you to be relentlessly negative.
The key message here is: Your brain is always searching for bad news.
Neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo carried out a study in which he showed his subjects different sets of images and measured how their brains responded. He found that people became more engaged when they looked at negative pictures, like guns and dead animals. Positive photos – things like pizza and ice-cream – didn’t create the same level of excitement.
Dr. Cacioppo concluded that negative information seems to trigger a greater mental response.
Unfortunately, our negative bias doesn’t stop there. Other studies have found that we’re quicker to spot an angry face in a crowd than a cheerful one. This phenomenon is called the anger superiority effect. Worse still, our negative bias affects our interpersonal relations, too. We tend to see people’s bad characteristics as more significant than their positive traits.
But why are we so negative? The answer lies in our evolutionary past, and a region of our brain called the amygdala.
Your amygdala plays a key role in your emotions and decision-making. It’s especially sensitive to negative information. This sensitivity evolved with our prehistoric ancestors. Their lives were incredibly difficult. They had to deal with lots of aggression from members of their own tribe, and predators were an ever-present threat. In other words, if our ancestors hadn’t been wired to always look out for trouble, chances are they wouldn’t have lived long enough to reproduce.
Thankfully, modern life isn’t nearly so dangerous. But evolution moves slowly, and your amygdala is still scanning for threats. The author, for instance, often feels threatened when she finds herself in busy subway stations. The reason is simple: her amygdala is warning her that there are no plants or water sources around, so she might have a problem finding sustenance.
In the following blinks, we’ll combat this negativity bias, and look at all the reasons to be positive instead.
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