I would venture to say we all know someone whose life perspective tends towards the ‘cup is half-empty’ viewpoint. Maybe that even describes your expectations of life. Well, my husband Ron, who would not argue with that description of his perspective in general, took the truism to a new level during a European trip back in the late 80’s. (i.e. no cell phones, no search engines, no GPS.)
We were there visiting a sister of mine and her husband who was in the Air Force. We spent several days traveling together by car through parts of Germany, Austria, and France.
It was the day we were driving into the Bavarian Alps to tour Neuschwanstein castle, (You may know it as the inspiration for the iconic Walt Disney Sleeping Beauty castle); and we hit a snowstorm.
It soon became a complete white-out, with the requisite slick road surface, and traffic halted on the two-lane highway. As we sat in the virtual parking lot, trying to assess how many miles of cars were ahead of us, and if the standstill included any accidents, Ron was full-on into his crisis sarcasm. It was about the forty-five-minute mark of no movement or update that he declares he is going to get to the bottom of this snowy fiasco.
Ron ignored the three of us as we attempted to counter his irrational scheme, pointing out a few obvious flaws of his action plan – like the fact that there would be several languages other than English to block his goal of asking questions and receiving answers.
But he threw off our counsel and headed out into the blizzard. It was maybe a half-hour later when he returned, looking like the abominable snowman, murmuring under his breath about how “screwed up their highway systems and snowfall preparations are over here.” His sardonic rant went on...and on...
Meanwhile, the three of us burst out in laughter, and my sister Maria’s next statement became an instant family classic (IFC):
“Ron, I knew you were a ‘cup-half-empty kind of guy’ but I didn’t realize until now, you can’t even find the cup!”
We did make it to the Neuschwanstein castle, and went on to have an epic trip overflowing with IFC’s! And I must say on Ron’s behalf, even though he was rarely not entertaining with his sarcastic commentary during that life season, he has not only found the cup, but has made great strides in being intentional to not always agree with his brain’s tendency to go to the negative in any given situation.
I’ve done some reading on this topic of what the neuroscience community calls “the negativity bias” that is a part of the human brain’s original design, meant to keep us safe – alive even – when there are threats all around with which to contend. I mean like huge beasts wanting to make us their next meal, or a carnivore fighting us over who will take home the family’s food supply for the upcoming winter!
So fast-forward to this century, when we are so advanced we only fight over grocery carts and self-checkout stations, our brains are still setup to be vigilant about possible threats to our survival. One offshoot of this design is our brains look for and retain the negative far faster and longer than the positive.
From Kendra Cherry, in her article “What is the Negativity Bias,”
While we may no longer need to be on constant high alert as our early ancestors needed to be in order to survive, the negativity bias still has a starring role in how our brains operate. Research has shown that negative bias can have a wide variety of effects on how people think, respond, and feel. Some of the everyday areas where you might feel the results of this bias include in your relationships, decision-making, and the way you perceive people.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Rick Hanson, neuroscientist and author of “Hardwiring Happiness,” our brains process positive stimuli very differently from negative stimuli. Hanson explains:
The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.
That means we will need to do intentional work to (re)train our brains if we desire to have a ‘cup-half-full’ view of life, let alone experiencing a cup-full or fulfilling life.
In regard to training our brains, there is a so-called magic ratio.
Experts say that when we can greet one negative thought, experience, or sentiment with five positive ones, we can offset our negativity bias. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, it will take five (or more) positive interactions to override the negative.
Hmm...Pondering all of this brain training brings me to thinking about just how smart God is.
Our Creator God knew we would need to be intentional about dwelling on the good, the positive, and remembering His faithfulness up to this point, that we might believe in His goodness in our now and unknown future.
Remembering His faithfulness in the past, leads to gratitude in the present, which can become hope, faith, and peace about the future.
Did you know that the word remember is used 352 times in the Bible? And if you include its variants, the number jumps to over 550!
I believe in, as my friend coined it, the power of remembering forward. That is, to recount God’s faithfulness in our lives and apply that evidence to our need for belief and hope in our present and future situations. And wouldn’t gratitude be a byproduct of such reflection? So, as I understand it...
Couldn’t an attitude of gratitude effectually be an exercise in (re)training our brain, away from its propensity towards the negative vigilance and projection?
As I mentioned earlier, there are hundreds of scriptural references where God is encouraging us to remember - His faithfulness, His protection and rescue, His provision... In the Old Testament, He consistently spoke this message to the people of Israel as He yearned to have them trust in His love for them.
As an example, if you read Psalm 103, David begins with “forget not all of His benefits” and then starts listing the evidence of God’s faithfulness to him and His people. David is trying to stir up an attitude of gratitude in the Israelites. And with the impressive list of God rescues and blessings David lays down in this sacred verse, how could they not gratefully trust Him for their present and future? Which leads me to...
How could I not gratefully trust God for my present and future after reflecting on His faithfulness to me in the entirety of my life journey?
And yet, I can wring my hands with worry over what I see or don’t see, feel or don’t feel, totally negating the point of faith, which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews 11:1)
Take for example, when I fall into foreboding when I haven’t heard back from someone important to me after sending a text or email, or leaving a voice message. Uh-oh, did I offend them in some way? Did my intended message not translate accurately over text?
I must be too much for them...
And so it goes... The negativity bias starts running my mental hamster ragged! What a waste of energy, right?! And I’m wired to be a cup-half-full kind of girl!
Proof positive for me, my husband is not alone in his bent for the bleak. No matter our wiring, or Enneagram Type, our brains’ design comes with the challenge of overcoming the force of foreboding (albeit it may manifest differently according to individual personality types).
But let’s practice positivity here and now: Ok, what can we do about this? What does retraining our brains look like? So I posed this question to ChatGPT and the #1 answer was:
What are the best ways to remedy the negativity bias?
#1 - Practice Gratitude: Cultivating gratitude can help counteract negativity bias. Regularly take time to reflect on the things you're thankful for, no matter how small. This can shift your focus toward positivity.
Click this link to read all of the Top Ten suggested tools to train your brain away from negativity, towards an attitude of gratitude.
The neuroscientists are catching on to what the Creator has known all along about our need to practice positivity and remembering forward to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that we might live full lives with overflowing cups.
To think about...
Do you know yourself to be a half-empty or half-full kind of personality?
What kind of situations can throw you into foreboding?
What 1 practice could you initiate in your daily life, (like keeping a gratitude journal, for example), that might help you in staying focused on gratitude?
(Note: For ideas, click: ChatGPT’s: Remedy Negativity Bias Strategies)
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