No matter how hard we try, we are constantly exposed to negativity. It’s in our social media feeds, the news we watch, and even the podcasts and books we may choose to unwind (I see you and I am one of you, true crime lovers!). The list goes on and on.
While many choose to combat negativity by piling on positivity, there’s actually a more efficient way to go about it: addition by subtraction.
“In striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add,” wrote University of Virginia professor Leidy Klotz in a 2021 Behavioral Scientist article discussing his book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. “We overlook the option to subtract from what is already there.”
As it turns out, working to reduce negativity has a ripple effect that outweighs trying to add positivity into your life. In 2021, a team of researchers led by Michael F. Scheier conducted a meta-analysis of 61 studies. Findings across these studies demonstrated that less pessimism was a more powerful predictor of better physical health outcomes than MORE optimism.
If you want to get to neutral—improving physical and mental health in the process—identifying current patterns of negativity (and reducing them!) is a great place to start.
What Is Negativity?
Time and time again, we’ve seen that leaving the concept of negativity wide open—without operationalizing it—can lead to confusion over logical concerns with “being negative.” This is unhelpful for productivity; a fake-positive facade should never win out over logic, and echo chambers don’t result in growth. As we’re defining it today, negativity includes (but isn’t limited to):
- Workplace incivility (check out Dr. Christine Porath’s book, Mastering Civility, for examples of how this is defined!)
- Fault-finding, disparaging, or belittling others in word or deed
- Continual complaining* and/or verbal rumination about an issue that’s out of your control and/or refusing to search for solutions
- Verbalizing catastrophized, over-generalized, and/or fixed-mindset-based thoughts, particularly those aimed at others or in the presence of a team or group
- Examples: “We’re never going to finish this.” “We might as well give up.”
This is ESPECIALLY true for leaders (water flows down the mountain, as they say!) but is still harmful coming from a colleague who’s not in charge.
Here’s what today’s definition of negativity doesn’t include:
- Challenging feedback
- Asking the hard questions
- Raising a concern
- Reaching out for support or help
- Identifying a problem or barrier and wanting to process it with the goal of finding a solution with your colleagues
These are all examples of necessary behaviors in high-performing teams. Just because something isn’t what you *want* to hear doesn’t mean it’s negative! Sometimes, it’s just an accurate description of the objective truth—which is about as neutral as it gets!
The Negativity Audit
“Incivility is so costly,” said Dr. Porath in a 2017 Forbes interview. “It robs cognitive resources, hijacks performance and creativity, and sidelines people from their work. Incivility impairs thinking. People miss information right in front of them.”
Even more so, “many get fed up and leave” when dealing with a negative work environment. We all know the impact a great resignation can have.
The good news is that an entire action overhaul isn’t necessary. You don’t have to become MORE positive to contradict the costs of incivility—you just have to reduce unhelpful negativity! This pertains to your behavior (including your speech) and working to take fewer directions from negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts can and will happen—they are a gift we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. But what helped our evolutionary ancestors survive the Ice Age and similar time periods, won’t necessarily help us thrive in the modern world. Becoming aware of our negative thoughts, acknowledging that they’re there, and choosing not to allow them to direct our actions helps us engage in neutral thinking and thrive—in the locker room, the boardroom, or the family room.
Here are some ways to lessen the negativity in your life:
Identify areas (domains and/or situations) where you notice yourself routinely “going negative.”
Once you have these, ask yourself:
- What do I [ideally] want to get out of these situations?
- What do I need to accept about these situations?
- What’s a behavior I can do to change how I show up in these situations?
- How can I ‘get to neutral’ in these situations?
You can even choose a text message conversation and briefly look through it to see how often you go negative.
Identify an area of your life where you frequently complain*.
Next, aim to reduce your complaints in that area. Start by cutting them in half, then keep going! Remember: You don’t have to replace all negative callouts with a positive comment. Even saying nothing is preferable—less is more.
Environment matters. Notice your group and the effect it has on your own negativity.
If you need to shore up your community, join us at Club Limitless. Besides content and tools to keep you inspired and engaged in your negativity audit and neutral thinking journey, you’ll find a whole host of amazing people on the same path. We’re here for you!
*Note: Here, I’m talking about the “unhelpful” type of complaining that gets us no closer to something helpful (whether that’s working through a tough emotion, connecting with someone, or solving a problem)—that verbal “circling the drain” we do that’s akin to ruminating out loud, after which we, and maybe those around us, feel worse instead of better.
There are helpful ways to “complain”—a strong difference is present between unhelpful verbal rumination vs. venting, naming an emotion (name it to tame it!), or processing for the sake of relationship-building or problem-solving. As Micaela Marini Higgs writes, “Building the habit of consciously thinking about the purpose of your conversation, rather than going into negative autopilot is a simple way to take off those muddy glasses.”
This is how you see whether your “complaining” is helpful or harmful.