It's very easy to find people who think there's too much negativity. It's hard to find people who think negativity is a good thing. But if negativity is bad, why is there so much of it? Why is it so popular?
In news reporting, there are something like 17 bad news reports for every good news item, confirming the jaded newshounds' rule of thumb: "If it bleeds, it leads." That's not just lazy traditional thinking; it's based on years of experience that still holds true. News editors know that violence, angst and misery play with the public; they get daily audience figures that confirm it. They know that most of the time, good news is no news.
In politics, everybody is complaining about the rampant growth of negative campaigning, including advertising that digs the dirt about opponents and warnings of dire consequences if the other party gets elected. In fact, negative campaigning has a long history and there's a good reason for that: It works. Negative messages are more effective than positive messages; they get more attention, and they're more memorable.
And let's not forget the news that the world was supposed to end in 2012. And in 2011. The end was also forecast in 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider started up and the world seemed on the edge of a financial meltdown.
Despite the constant gripes about negativity, there must be enough people buying it to keep it going. That is certainly the case in entertainment. More types of movies, books, TV shows and games focus on the dark side of life than on the light side. Directors, authors and their audiences are fascinated by horror, terrorism, tragedy, disaster, dystopia, conspiracy, crime and combat.
There's growing evidence that our interest in negativity isn't just a nasty habit created by sensationalist media and manipulative politicians; it's part of the way our brains work. Bad experiences create stronger and longer-lasting impressions than good ones; across many areas of human psychology, bad is stronger than good. It seems that our supersensitivity to negatives is rooted in our evolution: People who were especially alert to bad things may well have survived longer in prehistoric times. Come to think of it, many people would be better off now if they had taken more notice of the warnings and pessimistic views of the economy before it tanked.
The reason for all that irrational exuberance about money might come down to another quirk of the brain: the optimism bias. Although people pay a lot of attention to negative information, they expect things to turn out well for them personally.
The net-net is that being sensitive to negative events helps us beware of potential dangers, while expecting positive events in the future motivates us to keep on keeping on. We're constantly treading a fine balance between noticing what might be wrong and looking for ways to make things right. We're always at the mercy of doom-and-gloomers who forecast the worst and smiley snake oil merchants who promise the best.
Time for More Positivity
There's plenty to worry about these days, from personal health and finances to the bad economy, social decline, climate change and the meaning of life. Fortunately, there's also a growing range of solid approaches to positivity with real-world answers and plans to make lives simpler, safer and sexier.
In organizational development, the practice of Appreciative Inquiry has been gaining traction. It's based on the simple principle of finding out what's working in an organization and building on that. The traditional approach to change is diagnosing what's "broken," prescribing a fix and then getting the organization to adopt somebody else's idea of best practice, what's known as expert-driven solutions. Appreciative Inquiry gets the organization to appreciate its own successful ideas and develop more based on them.
A similar style of thinking underpins the fast-growing discipline of positive psychology. In a departure from the traditional concern with mental illness, it focuses scientific research on well-being and the conditions, strengths and desirable qualities that let people thrive. With research into upbeat topics such as well-being, pride, forgiveness, happiness, mindfulness and psychological strength, it has garnered massive popular coverage. Corporations and the U.S. military have been especially interested in applying it to foster positive qualities such as resilience.
In down times, we certainly need all the encouragement we can get. No wonder today's hero companies and leaders tend to be big on positivity in their words and deeds. Virgin head Richard Branson is famed for the irreverent, upbeat attitude typified by his book Screw It, Let's Do It: 14 Lessons on Making It to the Top While Having Fun & Staying Green, and Zappos guiding light Tony Hsieh has crafted a corporate culture and a book dedicated to Delivering Happiness. Google is famed for its idealistic approach to being a great place to work; employees get mindfulness training by engineer and official Jolly Good Fellow Chade-Meng Tan and a copy of his book Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace).
People who go against the crowd and succeed have a catchy new name: positive deviants. The great majority of them aren't celebrated CEOs. They're outliers in organizations and communities who face the same problems and challenges as everyone else but somehow manage to achieve better results. They're often unlikely people without any special status who are ignored until positive deviance specialists recognize and celebrate their smarts.
Watch for pragmatic and positive to grow as key words in 2013 and beyond.
This is the second in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, will be published on 12/12/12 and available at 120MBooks.com. Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.