Also, the previous post on what I believe happiness is and is not is here: 5 Steps to Happiness – What is Happiness?
I had labeled this step as Cancelling Negativity, but that was not entirely at all accurate. The more I thought about how it was that I “overcame” negativity, the more irritated I became. Because I didn’t overcome it. I developed it. And then got rid of what I didn’t need.
For years, people have stated that the only way to find happiness is to replace negativity with positivity. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s nearly impossible to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Also, why would anyone want to do that?
I like my negativity. It’s part of who I am. It helps me get things done. It pisses off my HOA yard monitoring neighbor. Win/win.
I believe that in general negativity is a good thing when used properly and that it is a natural part of each of us. Hopefully, you realize that you do have some level of negativity. Almost everyone does. The only reason I say almost everyone is because there may in fact be a person I have yet to meet that is made of unicorn glitter and pixie dust.
Rather than replacing negativity, the goal should be to wield your negativity wisely. It’s more about learning: 1) how much negativity is too much (for you) and 2) how to use negativity effectively.
Negativity is not generated by any outside source. It’s within you. No matter how bad traffic was, how awful your boss is, or whether your spouse really did say those jeans made you look fat, these things are not sources of negativity. All of life’s crap can certainly stir up negative emotions and thoughts, but the crap itself is neutral. It’s the old cliché of “it’s not the circumstances but how we react to it.” We drum up negativity all by ourselves. Some good, some bad. Or, a better way to put it may be useful versus useless.
Useful vs. Useless Negativity
The short list of productive negativity versus what we should kick to the curb looks something like the lists below. It’s not always this cut and dry and there are more variations, but it’s a good starting reference.
Useful Bits of Negativity
- Avoiding danger
- Problem solving
- Complaining with positive purpose or venting (aka keeping your sanity)
- Humor (if you’re so inclined)
Bastards of Negativity
- Self-defeating negativity
- Complaining without purpose
- Feeding negative emotions so they build
- Catastrophizing (fatalism)
- Being a jerk (NOTE: Can be a fine line with humor)
The Good Kind (Useful Negativity)
Using whatever negativity you have for positive – or at least practical – results is the key.
Probably the most basic beneficial type of negativity is generated by healthy amounts of fear and is extremely useful for avoiding danger as a part of our fight or flight packaging. Imagine one of our ancestors approaching a sleeping saber tooth tiger for the first time having to make a judgment call between nice kitty and what-if-kitty-tries-to-kill me without a little negative skepticism.
Negativity (including fear) can also be helpful for problem-solving and it’s pretty much vital to contingency planning. There are people who make a living using negativity productively: disaster recovery specialists, worker’s safety regulators, IT professionals, countless scientists, parents (unpaid), and those folks that help guide my car onto the tracks at the car wash, without whom there would be disaster.
Figuring out how to fix, avoid, scheme, strategize, plot and otherwise get stuff done is more often a product of negative thinking.
The Bad Kind (Useless Negativity)
The useless kind of negativity is usually a result of line crossing. Balance is necessary. Here are some of the most common types:
- Problem-solve, but don’t get fatalistic: It’s rational to have a spare tire and a jack; it’s irrational to tow another car behind you “just in case.” That’s a silly example, but catastrophizing is more common than we realize. If you think you’re going to lose your job on a weekly basis (for rational or irrational reasons) then you’re not solving anything. You’re allowing negativity to cross over into useless fatalistic thinking. Not helpful.
- Planning that turns into worrying: There IS a line here (moms and dads, this is for you.) Plan for the worst, then LET IT GO. Worrying has a way of feeding back into itself to build even more negativity. You think you’re trying to plan ahead and instead end up stressing out about things you cannot control. Stop that.
- Venting vs. Complaining: Venting can be healthy; complaining about every little thing is not. This is the one where we falter the most. We all need to do a little complaining now and again, but too much will not allow you to go any deeper to find your happy place. How do you feel when you complain about traffic, really? Do you get more or less frustrated by the minute? Is there anything you can do about the traffic? NO. You. Are. Complaining. Needlessly. And, here again, negativity will feed back on itself. Stop unnecessary whining. Unless yelling at the guy in front of you makes you feel better, then go right ahead.
- Feeding those pesky surface emotions: Well, we only have so much space here. The book I’m working on goes into a lot more about both emotions and thoughts (THAT old chicken and egg routine), but for now I’ll say two things: 1) Emotions are meant to be felt, so don’t try and “control” them (go watch the Disney movie Inside Out right now if you haven’t seen it) and 2) Emotions can be fed by thoughts. Don’t let a negative emotion hang around longer than you would like because you keep feeding it with negative thoughts. Let it run its course then be on its way.
There is a balance between using negativity to make good judgent calls and letting an overdose of negativity become unproductive (i.e. useless.) It can be even more difficult to sort out if you have an overload of negativity to begin with.
How Much is Too Much?
Knowing whether or not you have too much negativity is entirely up to you since everyone is different. What I may consider a normal, healthy dose may overwhelm my Polyannaish co-worker and send her into a tailspin.
We have thousands of thoughts in a given day, so it’s not surprising that most of our negativity is generated from such a plentiful source. Negative thinking can become such a pervasive habit that it’s difficult to discern how much is too much by simply considering it. It’s like knowing when to stop eating donuts or when you shouldn’t let the fifteen seconds between binge watching episodes on Netflix pass you by.
The good news is that some of those little negative thought gems pass through our brains and spill out our mouth holes, which makes paying attention to what we say a good place to start.
Make a concerted effort to write down some of the negative statements you utter or stop for a few seconds after you say something particularly not positive to quickly analyze it. Honestly assess whether the negative statement was productive or useless. Did a problem get solved, were you able to plan ahead, was it GENUINE venting? Get a second opinion if you’re not sure or on the fence (if your negativity level is like mine you should have plenty of volunteers.)
If you have an abundance of negativity that isn’t serving any useful purpose, then not only are you wasting energy you may be blocking yourself from digging down to your inner happiness.
Removing Useless Negativity
If you do decide that you have excess useless negativity hanging around then you must decide one of two things:
- You enjoy all your negativity. I mean REALLY enjoy it. If complaining and other negative thoughts and behaviors makes you surface level happy then good for you! But, you better be sure. (This will be more obvious in the next step when it comes to time to decide about inner happiness.)
- You don’t relish the excessive or useless negativity. Then the only option is the obvious one: Get rid of it.
The great news is that getting rid of any unnecessary negativity is easy once you’ve made the decision to do so.
I bet you thought I was going to say it’s difficult. It isn’t.
Use the Force
You’ve done the most difficult step by making a conscious choice and that alone is the best way to remove negativity. Notice I didn’t say replace. Ignore is a good word. Analyze is another. STOP IT is two words that I find very helpful.
Ask yourself why you are complaining or whether worrying is going to fix a problem or if you’re being fatalistic… Again, what is the POINT of your negativity? More accurately – what’s in it for you?
Negativity that is not serving you is keeping you from having productive thoughts or behaviors (negative or positive) that will benefit you.
Happy Is as Happy Does
This method will be familiar because it’s been labeled as a way to sustain happiness by countless positivity teetotalers. While it does NOT lead to the true inner happiness we’re seeking, it is a way to get rid of negativity you don’t want hanging around.
Look for and then do the things that make you smile. Hobbies, future goals, work that you enjoy, family, etc. Finding what keeps you motivated, focused or occupied (or in other words, surface level happy) will undoubtedly help to keep an overload of the useless kind of negativity from creeping up on you, and that will help keep the path to inner happiness clear of debris.
Back to Gratitude
Reducing unwanted useless negativity can be done during the Gratitude step entirely, if you choose to really experience being grateful. I know, I’m a jerk. We could’ve solved both steps at the same time, but it’s more fun to torture you. Not, that’s only partially not the case.
I told you being grateful may not be necessary to find your inner happiness, but I also said it would probably make it easier. It depends on how much unproductive negativity you want to get rid of and whether gratitude is truly something that works for you.
If you take a look at the Gratitude again, you’ll find it’s about looking for the good things in life and that (mainly) requires positive thinking. (Which is why it took me so long to figure what being grateful was all about.)
This is the part where I say positivity has its place. Don’t worry, I’m NOT going to tell you that positivity by itself leads to your inner happiness because it (still) doesn’t.
We are made up of negativity and positivity and we need both. The balance you carry around is up to you.
Don’t Go All Positive On Me
As a reminder, I am no way stating that you must start being all bubbly and/or sparkly in order to be happy. Please, don’t do that.
You don’t even have to replace negativity with positivity, so no need to memorize any corny affirmations or read every single one of those goddamn positive mantra memes on Facebook. (Imagine all the space you can free up on your desk or fridge and all the reading time you will have saved.)
The amount of negativity each of us wields is entirely individualized. What’s important is having a balance of positivity and negativity that’s right for YOU and having the ability to use your negativity effectively.
If you have too much useless negativity it becomes a habit and will block you from choosing your inner happiness, which is what we’ll (finally) talk about next. Ultimately, the decision to be happy is a (courageous) choice that is entirely up to you.
*Update: For more on negativity and what to do with it, check out the September 2017 book Negatively Ever After: A Skeptic’s Guide to Finding Happiness