Why our brains focus on the negative – via the New York Times

Joe Joseph (let’s call him) walked out of an important meeting at the company he worked for, “Golden Handcuffs” (let’s call it), and immediately felt horrible. He had received a ton of criticism (not much of it constructive), and other assortments of negative information.

Over the course of the day, he had also been on the receiving end of some general compliments from his peers, an easy commute, and a thank-you note from a good friend.

But all he could focus on was the negative.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in a recent article in the NY Times…“Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

Research tells us, bad feedback has much more of an impact than good feedback. In fact, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass… Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

Joe Joseph is not alone. We as a culture and a society tend to focus on the negative for a variety of reasons, and now, some neurological research tell us this is normal.

But, normal does not mean healthy.

Can you soak up and stack up enough “positives” to out-weigh the negatives, and is it simply a matter of working hard (very hard) to modify your outlook enough to concentrate on the positives?

Evolutionary tales tell us those who were more attuned to negative events were better equipped for survival and threat deterrence. But, we want more than to just survive – we want to thrive.

Here are some practical tips to help focus on the positive:

  1. Spend your time around people who lift you up. View your brain as a bank – our goal is  increase positive deposits and decrease the number of  negative withdrawals.
  2. Don’t shun criticism but remember its place. Constructive criticism is important and un-avoidable – focus on action steps, and stick to facts instead of feelings.
  3. Take a cue from Professor Amabile, who writes of the power of small wins. Take note and strive for making progress on meaningful work and the steps forward you can take every day.
  4. The article gives the example of a “Kudos File”, or positive piggy bank. Work to remind yourself of the positives, steer your focus towards them, and in return, offer specific praise to friends and colleagues when you can.

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Tips for navigating the path from passion to purpose

It can be a bumpy ride, this whole passion and purpose adventure. Buckle your seatbelt but please remember to take in the view.

Here are some practical tips for navigating the journey to finding and pursuing your passion and purpose.

1. Mistakes are gifts

Something I’ve learned over the past 8 years is to truly embrace the improv principle of: “Mistakes are Gifts”. If we can learn to view what might be considered a mistake, as a gift, there really are no mistakes. Our definition of a mistake, or a failure can be shaped by our mindset — and our mindset is something we can control. What did you learn from each experience, and what lessons can you take with it on to the next stop in your adventure?

My “mistakes” contributed to so many positives – I feel more equipped to take on challenges, I have come to appreciate my breadth of experience, and I actually found my passion because of some of the “mistakes” I made in choosing past jobs.

Increase your bounce-back rate from these “mistakes” and use them as intuitive guides to help shape your path. What gold can you mine?

2. Diversify your dreams

This blog from HBR’s Passion and Purpose series stresses the importance of diversifying your dreams. It may seem silly to treat our dreams as stocks. But what happens if your dream never generates a return?

Keep an open mind as you look to follow your passion. Several years ago I was convinced I would be happy IF I landed a certain dream job. I very much had a “if then, this” attitude. I landed the job after over a year of waiting and paying my dues. Turns out, it didn’t make me happy. What I thought was my passion was just a hobby. Finding your passion doesn’t always include a means to an end. As so many say, the reward is the journey, not the destination.

Diversify your dreams. Find the tools that inspire you and keep adding to your toolbox. Remember that the tools you acquire can be used for a multitude of projects and jobs. Keep searching for more tools, keep adding to your toolbox. And most of all, keep an open mind.

3. Celebrate the small wins

It’s more important than we realize.

4. Practice gratitude in the face of uncertainty 

This quote from today’s HBR article encompasses the grateful, open-minded approach we need to keep on the path:

“develop a folder of gratitude – a constantly updated listed of all the things in life you’re grateful for. Chances are, many of the things on your list correspond neatly with your underlying passions. Then, take your list and amplify these passions with intelligent experiments. Test and invest in your areas of interest, and cultivate the joy of learning from failure. Finally, just like any investor worth their salt, double down on winners. If something strikes a chord, reallocate more time and energy to it. View your dreams as organic and ever-changing, and you’re much more likely to be pleased with the outcome”

Remain flexible, adaptable, open-minded and most of all curious. Set your intention and keep moving one foot in front of the other. There may be multiple paths, but the unknown is as exciting as it’s ever been.