Challenge Your Negative Thinking With the 5:1 Ratio
How many good things happened in your life yesterday?
I'm talking about small moments of joy, or subtle wins at work, even the simplest things like, I finally remembered to bring my umbrella to work—just in time for this huge thunderstorm.
It's OK if only a few things jumped to your mind.
Now, if I asked you to remember any negative experiences that happened yesterday, would you be able to rattle off a handful?
Maybe you were involved in a misunderstanding at work, your commute was delayed, or you spilled coffee on your favorite shirt.
A bunch of negative memories might have sprung to mind—and it probably felt a lot easier than when I asked you to recall the positive things that happened yesterday. That's because we're able to conjure up negative experiences much more easily than positive ones due to our "negativity bias," aka the tendency to hold on to the bad much more tightly than the good.
“Over and over, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt told the New York Times.
The good news: We can find ways to deal with our negativity bias, and it starts with getting intentional about focusing on the positive.
"Positivity" can often sound like fluff, but there's a good reason to focus on the bright side of things. Talking to ourselves in a positive way can help us become better performers. Take, for instance, the impact of negative comments in the workplace. Researchers found after studying 60 business teams that the ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1. This means people were offering five times as many positive comments as negative ones. (Medium-performing teams had 1.9 positive comments for every negative one, and low-performing teams had three negative comments for every positive one, according to the Times.)
That's a magic ratio—five to one. Experts say that when we can greet one negative thought, experience, or sentiment with five positive ones, we can offset our negativity bias.
It holds true in relationships as well. A recent study found that if positive feelings and interactions between a couple outweighed negative ones five to one, a marriage was more likely to be stable over time.
So when you find yourself spiraling on the negative, can you think of five positive thoughts or things to counteract it?
Here are a few ways to make this happen:
Create a trap for your good moments.
As neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes, "Most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time."
So what we need to do is catch more positive moments.
Shine Squad member Anita from Houston, Texas, likes to do this by keeping a stockpile of "happy memories"—it's a strategy she created as a kid and still turns to today.
"When I find myself living in a new happy moment, I make a point of saving every detail in my head so I can use it again later," Anita tells Shine. "As an adult, I’ve studied neuroscience, and this technique is very scientifically sound. You can replay happy feelings in your brain as you recall the events that brought them about."
Try creating your own stockpile of "happy moments" by mentally bookmarking good moments when they come your way. It'll likely make you more intentional about savoring the good times.
Pretend these happy moments are 'to-do' items.
Do you get a little boost when you cross something off your to-do list, no matter what it is? Same here.
Think of your positive moments as little to-dos that you've already accomplished. So when something great happens, add it to your calendar or to-do list, then cross it off.
For instance, just this morning, I was amazed that a new bike route I found managed to cut five minutes off my commute. It made me so happy! So I retroactively put that on my to-do list: "Save five minutes on commute" and checked it off.
This small action made me grateful—and more likely to remember the positive experience tomorrow.
Reimagine what 'negative' means.
If, like Dr. Hanson writes, "the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones," then perhaps we need to change what our minds label "positive" or "negative."
Look, some negative moments can never be wished into good ones, but many less-than-ideal experiences actually do have silver linings.
So when something kinda awful happens, what would happen if you tried to come up with five possible good side effects, no matter how outlandish the idea seems?
I'll try this exercise with a big one. Let's pretend you lose your phone tomorrow. Scary thought, right? All the fears come pouring in: How will I communicate with my family, friends, co-workers, and keep up with that dog I follow on Instagram?
But if you dug deep, could you find five positive things hiding in this bad news?
Maybe I'll spend more time reading now... Maybe it'll help me set a boundary between work and home... Maybe I'll go for a walk to start seeing cute dogs IRL... Maybe when I go to get a new phone, they'll have a sweet deal on a newer device...
And so on. I'm not saying to be Pollyanna-ish about your negative circumstances, but if you can at least attempt to see the positive side, it will be a lot easier to deal with life's ups and downs.
Just remember: Five to one is your new secret weapon.