The negative brain

Evolution has ensured that we are quick to attend to potential threats around us, by providing us with an attentional system which orientates to the negative aspects of our environment

' 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 ready to relax, zap! the potential problems that were waiting in the wings take over.' (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

Some contemporary psychologists of happiness such as Ed Diener and David Myers are keen to point out that research shows that most people report being above neutral in mood the majority of the time. But the leaders of the Positive Psychology movement,  Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, argue that the brain tends to be negative. As is clear from the quote above, Csikszentmihalyi believes that, unless we are occupied with other thoughts, worrying is the brain's default position. This is why he argues we must constantly strive to escape such 'psychic entropy' by learning to control our consciousness and direct our attention to activities which provide 'flow' activities which give positive feedback and strengthen our sense of purpose and achievement.

Seligman argues that the brain is 'hard-wired' to be negative. In other words, it is all too easy for the brain to concentrate on worries and fears and for gloomy thoughts to dominate. Why? His argument, which draws on the work of evolutionary psychologists, is this: To have survived the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, where the weather was bad and life uncertain and fraught, our ancestors needed to be alert to danger to survive. So it is the genes of the gloomy, pessimists of Pleistocene times that we have inherited?  Not their happy-go-lucky relatives as they were more likely to have been washed away in an unexpected flood.

From a simple survival point of view it makes sense for our brains to prioritise negative information rather than positive. This means we pay much more attention to criticism than praise, for example: to the bad things that happen in life rather than the good. This is why research shows that people experience more negative emotion if they lose $100 than positive emotion if they 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 short, negative emotion always has the ability, as Seligman describes it, 'to trump' positive emotion. This is why Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi and others argue that we have to 'learn' to keep negative emotion in check and amplify positive feelings.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006