Positive Psychology is concerned with wellbeing and optimal human functioning, in all of its different domains and contexts. Compared to subjects such as, e.g., depression and anxiety, these may seem like “fluffy” topics to explore (Even though I would not agree – what could be more important than wellbeing?)
Yet, even if one were inclined to call this a superficial topic this doesn’t automatically mean it’s superficial science. Here’s the thing: I’ve recently stumbled upon a paper listing 200 eminent scholars in psychology, concentrating on people that are still active today or have been publishing in the second half of the 20th century (thereby excluding “forefathers” such as Sigmund Freud). The ranking was determined by aggregating several indicators, such as number of citations, coverage in introductory psychology textbooks, and prestigious awards received. Here’s a screenshot of the top 10:
At No. 1, we see Albert Bandura who is most renowned for this research on self-efficacy, the scientific equivalent of the popular notion “If you believe you can do it, you can do it”. Now, Bandura created most of his work before the onset of modern Positive Psychology, but he clearly has a big influence on the field.
At No. 3, we have Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Laureate of 2002 who, together with his late partner Amos Tversky (No. 9), has developed prospect theory. I´ve been told that Kahneman does not like being called a Positive Psychologist. Nevertheless, he´s the lead editor of the seminal book Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology which, by all means, makes him an important contributor to the field.
Luke Skywalker: “Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
If you are one of the few people on the planet that have not seen Star Wars: the dark side (of the Force) was not stronger. As in most Hollywood stories, the good guys win in the end. That´s why we go to the movies in the first place. We want to see an entertaining plot. That means: We want to see the good guy struggling, we want him to take on his challenge. And we want him to win in the end. And they lived happily ever after…
Unfortunately, in real life things look a little different. In real life, “Bad” mostly is stronger than “Good”. I´m not talking about a metaphysical power struggle here, of course. I´m talking about psychological phenomena. Together with some colleagues, MAPP guest lecturer Roy Baumeister has written a review article that goes by the name of this blog post: Bad is Stronger than Good. They´ve gathered tons of empirical evidence on a wide array of psychological mechanisms to lend support to this stance:
On the preconscious level, we pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli.
Negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. This can be demonstrated even on the level of neural activity.
In terms of impression formation, negative information by far outweighs positive information (telling one lie can make you a “liar” forever).
Bad memories are engraved deeper in our brains and can be retrieved more easily.
Bad events in our lives have a stronger and longer-lasting effect than good events. This is nicely demonstrated by the fact that we do have word for the consequences of very very bad events (trauma), but there´s no corresponding term for the positive side of the emotional continuum.
Negative feedback has a stronger and longer-lasting effect on us than positive feedback.
Therefore, we put a lot more emphasis on avoiding negative information pertaining to ourselves than focusing on integrating positive information.
In close relationships, one bad event can ruin everything. Yet, a lot of positive events cannot save a relationship “forever”.
Bad parenting has a stronger negative effect on the development of the children than good parenting has on positive development.
This list could go on forever. And: there´s hardly any exception to be found.
But is it really that bad?
Baumeister et al. argue that we may be evolutionary hardwired to put a strong emphasis on negative stimuli in our environment. At the end of the day, 10,000 B.C., it probably was far more “adaptive” (= useful for spreading your genes) to be the first person in a group spotting that saber tooth tiger lurking behind the bush than spotting those sweet blackberry growing on the bush. In other words, there is an all-pervasive negativity bias that influences our thinking and feeling at all times.
So in a sense, every single human being wears the opposite of rose-colored glasses all the time (and mostly without knowing that we do). Now, if this true, for me, there´s another important implication:
If we are evolutionary hardwired to perceive, process, and remember bad information to a much higher extent than positive information, it follows that – on a more objective level – the world actually is a much better place than we think it is.
Now the big question is: What can we do about this inherent negativity bias? How can we overcome this urge to see everything through “concrete-colored” glasses?
Because I really feel weshould! While looking out for threats at all times may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene – it probably is not as helpful in the so-called developed world. We live in relative safety. With very rare exceptions, nobody has to suffer from starvation. When we´re sick, we go to the doctor and receive treatment. Most of us die of old age, not of homicide or wild animals. From more than one point of view, this is a good place to live in.
In spite of this, mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety disorders, are “booming” – for decades by now. While this development certainly has multiple causes, I believe one reason is that the negativity bias has become maladaptive in our times. We are bombarded with thousands of messages via different media outlets each and every day. And the sad truth is that most media tend to focus strongly on negative news, events, and stories – precisely because they know we tend to focus on negative events. It drives their reach and circulation. So obviously, we are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in this world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the worst part of that already distorted view of reality.
We are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in the world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the unpleasant parts of that already distorted view of reality.
So what can we do?
Enter Positive Psychology. A short definition of positive psychology could be: “It´s the study of (psychological) things that go well”. By its nature, positive psychology studies positive phenomena: What makes us happy (instead of sad)? How can we find meaning in life (instead of languishing)? How do relationships flourish (instead of being a source of pain)? Etc.
By now, there´s a lot of scientific evidence on those questions. One finding that has popped up in several different domains of inquiry goes as follows: Good is stronger than bad – but only if good outnumbers bad to a considerable extent. In Baumeister et al.´s words:
“This is not say that the bad will always triumph over good, spelling doom and misery for the human race. Rather, good may prevail over bad by superior force of numbers: Many good events can overcome the effect of a single bad one.”
Basically, raising the number of positive experiences in our lives is also one of the essential mechanics underlying positive (psychology) interventions, such as the What Went Well exercise or the Gratitude Visit. They create (or shift our attention to the) positive momentum in our lives to counterbalance the all-pervasive negativity.
The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad.
But what about our daily lives? Who has the time to perform interventions all the time? The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad. Good thing is: We do not have to be larger-than-life leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela do make an impact. It´s the little things that count (a.k.a. micro-behaviors) – if they come in large amounts. A smile. A thumbs-up. An affirmative nod. A pat on the back. Putting the toilet lid back down…
A little kindness goes a long way.
If you need more inspiration, watch this – again and again if you like: