"Unhappiness or negativity is a disease on our planet," Eckhart Tolle has correctly observed. What pollution is on the outer level, negativity is on the inner. It is a common denominator in our competitive and adversarial culture where we are each striving to be noticed and rewarded. It seems to be everywhere in our society and it's nearly impossible to escape its reach.
The seductions of negativity are present in our attachment to bad or unpleasant news. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the operating principle of many media outlets. Negative advertising is a staple in political campaigns. And it dominates political talk shows where pundits and politicians alike spout negative assessments of each other's opinions.
Negativity is also built into "entertainment" magazines and TV shows which emphasize negative gossip about celebrities and their failures and addictions. Still popular are reality television shows where the main delight is watching losers being humiliated.
Equally disgusting are the shrill, foul mouthed, and hate-filled posts on the Internet and the comments responding to them. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of the animosity of malcontents: "I'm not interested in having the sewer appear on my site. Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?" Good question.
In addition to the pop nihilism propagated by the media, negativity is all over our personal interactions. Therapists and coaches contend that if you listen to the daily conversation of people, 75% of it is negative. We complain about the weather, traffic, work, food, movies, waiting, and much more. Whining has become a national pastime.
Our days and our monologues are filled with dissatisfactions, blame, and judgments about our bodies, possessions, co-workers, political leaders, and strangers. Joanna Fishman, a provider of therapy services, has described four mindsets of negative thinkers: those who pick a situation and then see only the negative in it; those who personalize the negative and make every dark cloud as a tragedy about themselves; those who are caught up in catastrophizing and over-reacting; and those who polarize everything as black and white. These negative thinkers are so accustomed to judging and putting people down that they often are not even able to see how much they can harm others.
Now that we've been all negative about negativity, we ask, is there another way? Two popular approaches come to mind. Positive psychology provides therapy and resources for those addicted to narrow and rigid ways of thinking. Looking on the bright side of things keeps our minds at ease, fights stress, and improves physical health.
Optimism is another counter to negativity. It spurs us on as a powerful motivator, acts as a wall against fear and anxiety, lifts our spirits when things go wrong, and serves as a life preserver in tense times. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to be overcome."
As spiritually literate people, we can also use spiritual practices as antidotes to the negativity afoot in our private and public lives. Here are some suggestions.
- Affirmations. This is a sturdy practice known to shift attitudes and perspectives. Begin the day by affirming what you like or desire. End the day by writing down three positive things that happened.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Be on the lookout for upbeat and enthusiastic people to be your friends and co-workers. You can rejoice in their energy and make good use of it in your own relationships with others.
- Retrieve positive memories. Whenever you feel the tug of negativity starting to pull you down, recall something positive that you experienced in the past. Harvest these good times again and again.
- Look for silver linings. It's not just a pop song. All the great spiritual teachers advocate looking for something good that can come out of dealing with a setback, obstacle, or repeated trouble.
- Practice gratitude. Ward off the dark clouds of discontentment by making a regular practice of tallying up all the good things in your life. When we are grateful, and don't take things for granted, it is hard for negativity to gain a stronghold in our lives.
- Persevere. Perseverance is a character trait that is not talked about much today but it remains one of the finest tools to combat negativity. We need this quality of doggedness and determination for our daily labors and for the Great Work of saving the planet.
- Aim for a 3 to 1 positivity ratio. Don't forget that negativity is not always bad. Negativity can fuel righteous indignation and activism to counter problems in the world. Research from the field of positive psychology suggests that a good ratio is 3 to 1: for every dark and depressing experience there will be three positive ones to uplift you.
- Be playful. Humor and playfulness can take the wind right out of negativity's sails. Especially helpful is not taking yourself so seriously.
- Acknowledge the Great Unknown. Negativity breeds when we think that we are in charge and therefore must be able to have things our own way. We get frustrated — and negative — when we discover that we don't know how or why or when change might or might not come. Now turn this around. Embrace the Mystery at the center of the universe. Make "don't know" your mantra. Life becomes a great adventure full of wonder and joy when you haven't got a clue what's coming next.