2020 was a year that posed monumental challenges for all of us. The Australian bushfires, Beirut explosion, police brutality exacerbating racial tensions, and of course, the pandemic – the list goes on. Even among those whose health and safety was not compromised by the circumstances of 2020, many experienced loss of job, family/relationship conflicts, mental health struggles, and more. Although we have entered a new year, the negative experiences gathered from 2020 still weigh heavily on us. When combined with our natural proclivity towards negativity bias, this can make us feel defeated by 2021 before it has barely begun.
There is an evolutionary rationale behind negativity bias, the human tendency to focus on and remember aversive experiences. In our primitive days, it was crucial to remember that time we were bitten by a snake, or fell ill from eating a poisonous plant so that we could recognize and avoid these dangerous stimuli in the future. We lean into this bias because it protects us. However, if left unregulated, negativity bias can ultimately cause more damage than good by developing into maladaptive thinking patterns. We may become hypervigilant when there is no real threat present, positive experiences slip by without the acknowledgment they deserve, and we lose our sense of hope. So how do we counter negativity bias as we proceed with 2021?
- Gain awareness of positive experiences as they happen.
Sometimes the enjoyment of an experience may be very obvious, such as if you were to laugh so hard that your abdominal muscles cramp up. Sometimes your enjoyment maybe more subdued, such as if you were to notice the smooth velvety texture of a chair that you are using, or if your regular coffee shop barista greeted you by your name and with a smile. No matter how small, it is important to consciously register these experiences, otherwise your mind may distort the day to seem much more negative than it really was.
- Practice fair reflection on a daily basis.
Think of your positive and negative thoughts as two children in your mind, each itching to tell their stories from the day. Your job is not to decide who has the best stories, instead you play a role of ensuring that each child feels heard and acknowledged. If you notice the child sharing negative experiences is highly distressed, take time to assess and tend to needs as you deem necessary. However, do not dismiss the contributions of the child who shared positive aspects of the day.
- Be proactive to incorporate activities that will make your day more pleasant.
Try to set aside some time purely to engage in activities you find relaxing or enjoyable. This might be that regular run that gives you a rush of endorphins, or your daily soothing skincare routine. It could also be something new to you, like trying out rock climbing, pottery-making, or a live online concert for the first time. Having some variation in your arsenal of pleasurable activities helps keep things stimulating. On days when free time seems nonexistent, small adjustments can enhance the experience of tasks on your to-do list. Play a podcast or music at you enjoy as you do your chores, or throw on that shirt that makes you feel like a million bucks when you wear it.
Entering 2021 when many impactful factors remain out of our control, it is crucial to empower ourselves through the factors within our control. This can make a significant difference in how we experience challenges that all of us are subjected to. Every time you try out one of the aforementioned suggestions, give yourself a mental note of appreciation for taking a step (regardless of how big or small) towards enhancing your quality of life. Lastly, remember that you do not have to face these struggles alone. Reach out to social support, such as family members and friends, and seek professional help when necessary.
Ms. Michelle Chak