“How was your day, honey?” your mom asks expectantly over a plate of string beans and mashed potatoes.
You stab at your lumpy potatoes angrily, fork grating harshly against the plate.
“Stacy Adams is a jerk-faced weasel,” you say. “She deliberately didn’t pick me for volleyball, and I had to play with the bad team. I didn’t get an A on my math test even though I studied so hard. And I forgot my coat, so I was cold all day.”
In this moment, with congealed potato coating your fork, you are sure that nothing good has happened to you today. You are positive that on a scale of one to ten, your day ranked a stinky two.
Maybe you did have a horrible day. Or maybe you’ve just gotten stuck in the negative.
Alison Ledgerwood discusses this common human tendency in her popular TED talk, Getting Stuck in the Negative. Ledgerwood became fascinated with why it seemed so much harder to focus on our gains instead of our losses. She conducted several studies, and found that the human brain has to work almost twice as hard to convert a negative to a positive. What does this mean? When something is presented to us as a negative, (like a glass half empty), not only does it take twice as much effort to try and turn it into a positive, (glass half full), it also is twice as hard to recover from the loss mindset it creates.
Before you begin emotionally eating the contents of your cupboards, sure you are doomed to be stuck in the negative for life, know there is way to fix this. There’s only one caveat you need to accept:
It’s going to be hard. It’s also going to be worth it. (Cue retrieving your red cape from the closet.)
Here’s the the thing: Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative. It’s easier, and at one time, was necessary for survival. We needed to remember where the dangerous pit in the woods was, or we were most likely to encounter a ravenous tiger. Our current concerns are not nearly as dire in this day and age, and yet, our brains are still wired the same. This means that every human in the world (including our mentors and heroes) has to train their brain to focus on the positive over the negative. The key is merely practice and consistency: The more we redirect our synapses to adopt a growth mindset, the easier it becomes to see the gains over the losses.
So how can we do this? Re-training the brain is hard; we can’t expect to be able to pole-vault to the finish. Ledgerwood suggests to start small with two scientifically proven ways to promote a growth-mindset. First, journal what you’re grateful for for five minutes every morning. Second, when your mother asks you about your day over gloppy mashed potatoes, don’t forget to tell the good stuff.