What do You Like? What are the things that bring positive feelings, the experiences you remember and relive for the pleasure or excitement they brought? Who are the people that brighten your outlook? What is going well in your life?
These are simple but easily overlooked questions to ask ourselves (and each other) in a world that often feels intent on bringing our focus to the negative. Our news media draw attention to conflict and catastrophe, social media’s algorithms are designed – more than a few former and current employees from some of the bigger companies have confirmed this – to tap into and monetize anger over natural divisions in opinion to drive clicks and escalate those divisions into suspicion and further our focus on the negative. For a lot of people, even everyday conversations routinely turn to their frustrations, fears, or anger with little pause to highlight what’s working well, or bringing them joy and hope. There’s actually a reason for this.
Human beings possess what is known as a “negativity bias” – hypothesized to be an evolutionary adaptation built into our psyches that formed out of our ancestors’ need to constantly scan for threats – the vestiges of which exist today. Our ancient ancestors learned to overlook the benign and constantly scan the horizon for what might attack, steal from, maul, kill, or eat them. Those best at scanning and avoiding dangers were more likely to live to pass along their genes and teach their offspring their danger avoidance skills. Descending from generations of these most fidgety, survival-focused forebears, our modern brains have inherited some of that old wiring, which means the default mode for many of us is to focus on “danger” (the negative) and skip over what is “safe” (the positive). The problem is that our negativity biases draw our attention away from the good in life, often leading to anxiety, sadness, and anger.
Which is why we like to ask questions about what people like, their positive experiences and memories, the people who uplift them, and where they see successes and positivity. We ask them to name their strengths and skillsets – and work with them to identify more – so as to foster a strengths mindset over one focused on real and perceived deficits.
Forcing this simple shift in focus onto what we like and value is one of the easiest ways to boost mood, improve outlook, and improve resilience, with resilience being one of the most important factors in emotional wellness. Resilient people view setbacks as disappointing but temporary, refuse to be defined by their failures and understand each as opportunities to learn, grow, and recalibrate. They maintain a realistic and healthy perspective and know not to generalize or draw broad conclusions from specific events. This does not mean resilient people don’t experience setbacks, disappointments, or failure; they do, and experience all the attendant anger, frustration, depression and even PTSD in certain circumstances. Nor are they exempt from forming initial judgments or stereotypes based on specific incidents or repetitive experience. The difference lies in how the more optimistic among us are able to quickly step back to reframe the experience(s), work through emotions, and envision a path forward.
Centering on what we like and enjoy has the added benefit of making us more interesting to others, and more interested in them, as well. This doesn’t mean we should never see, discuss, or fight back against negative forces and circumstances, only that we find balance. We can replace the natural negativity bias many of us come equipped with to a bias toward the positive.