“With nothing to do, the mind is unable to prevent negative thoughts from elbowing their way to center stage – worries about one’s love life, health, investments, family and job are always hovering at the periphery of attention, waiting until there is nothing pressing that demands concentration. As soon as the mind is relaxed, the potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990)
Worrying is the brain’s default position
Evolution has ensured that we are quick to attend to potential threats around us by providing us with an attention system, which orientates to the negative aspects of our environment. As is clear from the quote above, Csikszentmihalyi believes that, unless we are occupied with other thoughts worrying is the brain’s default position. He states that we must constantly strive to escape such ‘psychic entropy’ by learning to control our consciousness and direct our attention to activities which give positive feedback and strengthen our sense of purpose and achievement.
Negative Emotion is greater than Positive Emotion – Why?
Seligman, a partner in the positive psychology movement, argues that the brain is ‘hard-wired’ to be negative. It is almost automatic for the brain to concentrate on worries and fears and for gloomy thoughts to dominate. From a survival point of view it makes sense for our brains to prioritise negative information rather than positive. However, this unfortunately means that we pay much more attention to criticism than praise. We have greater negative emotion if we lose $100 than positive emotion if we win $100. It is also why bad news can easily undermine a good mood whereas good news rarely has the capacity to eliminate a bad mood.
In summary, negative emotion has the ability to trump positive emotion every time. Now that we know this we have to learn to keep negative emotions in check and amplify positive feelings.