I was teaching a Joy of Parenting course to a vibrant and well-educated group of parents. When I asked the group to introduce themselves, I requested that they briefly share individual parenting strengths and struggles. One by one, names and parenting struggles were offered with great ease. Yet, almost every parent had difficulty with recalling their strengths. I shared their sentiments and we had a good laugh about this! However, this common phenomena is worthy of exploration.
Enter in the negativity bias. Which may explain part of the reason why we all think that parenting is so difficult.
The negativity bias is a psychological term that describes the tendency for individuals to focus on negative events and situations in life, while simultaneously, being unaware of or less focused on neutral or positive events. Our bias towards the negative happens automatically. This is because our brains are hardwired for survival.
Our ancestors had to be able to fight or flee from threatening situations. Therefore, they also had to be on high alert for any situation or person that could potentially do harm. Back in the day, our biggest agenda was to stay alive by avoiding or warding off possible threats. This is why the one negative event of the day tends to stay with us but we ignore the hundred positive or neutral events. For our ancestors, the hundred positive or neutral situations were useless for survival! Yet we had to be on the lookout for the one tiger that may attack and kill us.
It appears that some individuals have a stronger negativity bias than others. Those who lean towards depression and anxiety, for example, tend to have a heightened negativity bias. Parents that tend to become very overwhelmed with parenting may fall into this category as well. At times, our brains misinterpret our own children as being threats to survival!
The great news is that there are well-researched strategies that we can utilize to overcome our negativity bias. This makes it more likely that we will be able to relish in happiness and bring more joy and satisfaction to relationships within our family unit. Keep reading to learn some of these strategies.
1. Three good things
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, offers a quick and easy exercise that can train your brain to focus on the good. In your journal, at bedtime, make a list of three good things that went well during your day. If you want to improve the experience of parenting, make a list of what went well between you and your child. If you want more joy within your marriage, make a list recording the positive aspects of your relationship with your husband. Being the overachiever that I am, I like to spend a few minutes every night writing down every great thing I can think of, no matter how big or small. Another way to do this exercise, is to ask your children at dinner or as you tuck them in, to tell you three things that went well during the day as a common practice. This exercise has evidence supporting its effectiveness in lowering depression.
2. Relish in the good
In addition to recalling uplifting events at the end of the day, take some time to relish in your positive experiences as they happen throughout the day. Perhaps your children worked through an intense conflict, peacefully, and without your guidance. I encourage you to soak up the goodness of these kinds of moments by becoming mindful of the joy you are feeling as they happen. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, suggests that if we spend at least 30 second relishing in the good experience, that this has a powerful impact on your brain. Since many positive experiences are under-recorded by our brains, you actually have to put forth effort in raising your awareness of the good. Neurons that fire together, wire together so the more practice you put towards appreciating the good, the more automatic this process will become overtime.
3. Increase positive interactions
John Gottman, a research psychologist and relationship expert, has discovered that when couples have a 5 to 1 ratio, of positive interactions to negative interactions, they are more likely to stay together and avoid divorce. This finding implies that if we can increase the positive interactions between parent and children we will have more satisfying family lives and parenting experiences. The truth is, in relationships between family members, negative interactions will happen. Yet, our relationships are more likely to satisfying and long lasting be filled if we focus more on increasing our positive interactions rather than decreasing our negative interactions. This should come as good news, and possibly even relief! Let’s say you yell at your children or your spouse. Yes, this is a negative interaction. However, the relationship itself will be buffered against these kinds of injuries if there is a constant and high amount of positive interaction to balance things out. So, it will be worthwhile to start creating a multitude of positive acts of kindness, generosity, love, and affection.
4. Caring Days
Caring Days is a technique developed by therapist Richard Stuart that has been clinically shown to strengthen marriages. The following exercise has been adapted to be beneficial in raising warmth and positivity within families whom have children ages 6 and older. To do this exercise, sit down with your family at a time when everyone is balanced and content. Give everyone a piece of paper. On the paper write down behaviors, actions, activities, or events that you would like to see occur within the family. It will be important to request that the items are reasonable and attainable. Affordable material goods may go on the list, but the emphasis really should be more on experiences and actions that increase joy within the family. Some examples are to create a weekly game night, go out for ice cream, or get a backrub. Go ahead and list smaller actions such as a hug when greeting each other or saying goodbye. Make sure that everyone has around ten items on their list. Then place the list in an area that everyone can see. Over the next month, do what you can to start fulfilling items on the list. Every time you do something on someone’s list you can think of it as a “caring day”.
5. Practice mindfulness
I asked a well-respected marriage and family therapist, whose long-standing practice is dedicated to working with children with behavior disorders, to recommend some parenting tips to me. He told me that if parents want to transform the parent-child relationship, the one action they can take that offers the greatest hope for lasting change is that the parents start a mindfulness and/or meditation practice and teach the concepts to their children. This therapist has hefty anecdotal evidence illustrating that families can shift from conflict and chaos, to cooperation and connection, just by bringing mindfulness and meditation practices to all family members. Research supports the many benefits of mindfulness which includes lowered stress response, increased emotional regulation, and enhanced feelings of well-being. As parents, we could all use a big dose of these!
References and resources:
To learn more about the research behind positive psychology go to https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/.
To learn more about the work of relationship expert and research psychologist John Gottman, go to www.gottman.com
To learn more about Rick Hanson and his work on confronting the negativity bias, go to his website, www.rickhanson.net.
I read a great article the other day that briefly discusses the value of meditation, to read it go to https://www.rickhanson.net/meditation/.
Do you have any suggestions for how to raise the level of well-being in your family and parenting? Have you been able to override your negativity bias? I would love to hear about it. Please leave comments in the box below.