3 ways to think more positively, because the negativity bias is real

Want to think positive, but don’t know where to start? Give these three simple techniques a go.

We get it – “think positive” has to be one of the most infuriating expressions out there. When you’re struggling to muster any positive thoughts, being told to put a smile on your face and see the brighter side of life doesn’t feel very good. 

But what if we told you that thinking positive could have the power to counteract some of those negative thoughts? That flooding your mind with positivity could be an effective way to silence that inner critic?

The “3-1 ratio” is a concept widely discussed by scientists and psychologists alike as a way to understand happiness and positive thinking. Coined by positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the “magic ratio” suggests that we must have three positive emotions for every negative emotion in order to thrive.

Now, before you start taking this information as the hard-and-fast rule, it’s important to understand that this idea was heavily criticised in a paper published in 2013, which suggested that Frederickson’s ratio may not have much of a basis in science. However, that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t onto something when it comes to the power of thinking positive.

As humans, we’re susceptible to something called the negativity bias, which essentially means we’re more likely to engage with and amplify the negative side of things than we are to look on the bright side. 

When we try to “think positive” and mindfully focus on the positive things around us, we begin to counteract this bias and readdress the way we see the world, giving ourselves a greater chance at happiness in the process.

But thinking positive isn’t easy – especially when all you want to do is curl up in bed and moan about the world. Here, we explore three simple techniques to help you see the bright side – even when everything feels pretty dark.

1.Be more self-compassionate

Self-compassion is loosely defined as “treating yourself with the same kindness, concern and support you’d show to a good friend,” which essentially means monitoring and mindfully guiding your inner voice to make sure you’re speaking kindly about yourself.

The more we practise self-compassion, the more capable we are to speak positively and kindly to ourselves even in situations of distress or discomfort. 

As Dr Kristen Neff, one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion says: “Instead of just ignoring pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

While self-compassion in and of itself isn’t necessarily a way to think more positively, being kinder to yourself will make it easier for you to summon the power to think positively, as you’ll feel good on the inside.

To practise self-compassion, try to step back and evaluate the messages you’re telling yourself on a daily basis, and respond to difficult situations by giving yourself the same advice you would a good friend. 

2. Be mindful of your thoughts

The term mindfulness tends to be thrown about a lot these days, but being mindful about the thoughts you’re having can be a great way to practise positive thinking.

The meditation app Headspace defines mindfulness as “training present moment awareness and compassion both for yourself and others.” Mindfulness requires us to tune in to our senses and be more aware of what’s happening in the moment – and that can include being more aware of whether our thoughts are positive or negative.

The idea behind mindfulness isn’t that you’ll get rid of the negative thoughts completely. It’s important to acknowledge that it is perfectly healthy and normal to have these thoughts. It’s more that by practicing mindfulness, you’ll be able to label negative thoughts as just being “thoughts,” gently acknowledge them, and turn your attention back to thinking positively.

As Jeena Cho writes for Forbes: “Mindfulness practice is about the ‘return’ – this means noticing when your mind has strayed to thinking and bring your awareness to the present, to something a little more positive – having the intention to shift your attention.”    

3. Practice gratitude

It’s easy to forget how many things we have to be grateful for when we fill every second of our days with something “productive,” but taking the time to assess all the amazing things we’ve already got going on is a great way to train your mind to be more positive.

Studies have shown that taking the time to write down the things we are grateful for can help us to be more optimistic and feel better about our lives, so why not give it a try?

You could start a gratitude journal by writing down three things you are grateful for at the end of the day, or give a happiness jar a go: write down positive memories and put them in a jar to read when you’re feeling low.

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