By: Cristina Trette
I was teaching a Joy of Parenting course to a vibrant and well-educated group of parents. When I asked the group to introduce themselves, I requested that they briefly share individual parenting strengths and struggles. One by one, names and parenting struggles were offered with great ease. Yet, almost every parent had difficulty with recalling their strengths. I shared their sentiments and we had a good laugh about this! However, this common phenomena is worthy of exploration.
Enter in the negativity bias.
The negativity bias is a psychological process that describes the tendency for individuals to focus on negative events and situations in life, while simultaneously, being unaware of or less focused on neutral or positive events. Our bias towards the negative happens automatically. This is because our brains are hardwired for survival.
Our ancestors had to be able to fight or flee from threatening situations. Therefore, they also had to be on high alert for any situation or person that could potentially do harm. Back in the day, our biggest agenda was to stay alive by avoiding or warding off possible threats. This is why the one negative event of the day tends to stay with us but we ignore the hundred positive or neutral occurrences. For our ancestors, the positive and neutral were useless for survival! Yet they had to be on the lookout for the one tiger that may attack and kill.
It appears that some individuals have a stronger negativity bias than others. Those who lean towards depression and anxiety, for example, tend to have a heightened negativity bias. Parents that tend to become very overwhelmed with the day to day interactions of parenting may fall into this category as well. At times, our brains misinterpret our children's behavior as being threats to survival!
The great news is that there are well-researched strategies that we can utilize to overcome our negativity bias. This makes it more likely that we will be able to relish in happiness and bring more joy and satisfaction to relationships within our family. Read on for some tips.
1. Three good things
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, offers a quick and easy exercise that can train your brain to focus on the good. In your journal, at bedtime, make a list of three good things that went well during your day. If you want to improve the experience of parenting, make a list of what went well between you and your child. If you want more joy within your marriage, make a list recording the positive aspects of your relationship with your husband. I like to spend a few minutes every night writing down every great thing I can think of, no matter how big or small. Another way to do this exercise, is to ask your children at to tell you three things that went well during the day as a common practice. This exercise has evidence supporting its effectiveness in lowering the symptoms associated with depression.
2. Relish in the good
In addition to recalling uplifting events at the end of the day, take some time to relish in your positive experiences as they happen throughout the day. The positive does not have to be anything grand. Such as, perhaps your children worked through a disagreement, peacefully, and without your guidance. This would be the kind of situation we would want to soak in. Or, maybe you enjoy 20 minutes of snuggling with your kids before bedtime. Whatever those positive moments are for you, I encourage you to soak up the goodness by becoming mindful of the joy you are feeling as they happen. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, suggests that if we spend at least 30 second relishing in the good experience, that this has a powerful impact on rewiring neural pathways in the brain. Since many positive experiences are under-recorded by our brains, we actually have to put forth effort in raising our awareness of them. Neurons that fire together, wire together so the more practice you put towards appreciating the good, the more automatic this process will become overtime.
3. Increase positive interactions
John Gottman, a research psychologist and relationship expert, has discovered that when couples have a 5 to 1 ratio, of positive interactions to negative interactions, they are more likely to stay together happily and avoid divorce. This finding implies that if we can increase the positive interactions between parent and children we will have more satisfying family and parenting experiences. The truth is, in relationships between family members, negative interactions will happen. Yet, our relationships will become stronger if we focus more on increasing our positive interactions rather than decreasing our negative interactions. This should come as good news, and possibly even relief! For example, let’s say you yell at your children or your spouse. Or, you say or do something that leads your kiddo or partner to feel bad. Yes, these are negative interactions. However, the relationship itself will be buffered against these kinds of injuries if there is a high amount of positive interaction to balance things out. So, it will be worthwhile to start creating a multitude of positive acts of kindness, generosity, love, and affection.
4. Caring Days
Caring Days is a technique developed by therapist Richard Stuart that is clinically demonstrated to strengthen relationships. The following exercise has been adapted to be beneficial in raising warmth within families whom have children ages 6 and older. To do this exercise, sit down with your family at a time when everyone is balanced and content. Give everyone a piece of paper. On the paper write down interactions and activities that you would like to see occur within the family. It will be important to request that the items are reasonable and attainable. The emphasis should be on experiences and actions that increase joy within the family. Some examples are getting a hug every morning, weekly game night, going out for ice cream, or going to the movies. Make sure that everyone has around five items on their list. Then place the list in an area that everyone can see. Over the next month, do what you can to start fulfilling items on the list. Every time you do something on someone’s list you can think of it as a “caring day”.
5. Practice mindfulness
If parents want to transform the parent-child relationship, one action they can take that offers the greatest hope for lasting change is to start a mindfulness and/or meditation practice and teach the concepts to their children. Families can shift from conflict and chaos just by bringing mindfulness and meditation practices to all family members. Research supports the many benefits of mindfulness which includes lowered stress response, increased emotional regulation, and enhanced feelings of well-being. As parents, we could all use a big dose of these!
References and Resources:
To attend a Joy of Parenting class go to www.indigovillage.com
To learn more about the research behind positive psychology go to https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/.
To learn more about the work of relationship expert and research psychologist John Gottman, go to www.gottman.com
To learn more about Rick Hanson and his work on confronting the negativity bias, go to his website, www.rickhanson.net.
I read a great article the other day that briefly discusses the value of meditation, to read it go to https://www.rickhanson.net/meditation/.
Do you have any suggestions for how to raise the level of well-being in your family and parenting? Have you been able to override your negativity bias? I would love to hear about it. Please leave comments in the box below.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couple Therapist and Perinatal Mental Health Therapist. I help couples create secure and vibrant relationships. I also guide parents to connect with their children, and themselves. I write, teach, and speak on relationships, parenthood, and integrative mental health.