Our genes and life experience often determine how we see things. Some people see the world through rose-colored glasses, whereas for others, the grim reality of the world creates an underlying state of anger, guilt, contempt, disgust and fear.
Sometimes people refer to the latter group as having a Type D personality, to indicate a general level of distress. Often these groups of people are at loggerheads, with each believing that the world is a particular way because of the way they perceive and analyze it. By the time people reach adulthood, they assume that some people are just born this way or the other, but having such a casual attitude may not serve Type D personalities well. These people may be more prone to suicide attempts, may have poorer control of their physical illnesses (such as asthma), may report more occupational stress, may sleep more poorly and may also have a higher risk of coronary heart disease.
Thus, being more negative may affect your quality of life on all of these dimensions, which is why understanding and addressing this life attitude is important. Apart from genetic explanations, why do people with negative ways of viewing life have this way of viewing things, and what can we do about this?
A recent study published in Neuroimage provided a partial explanation for what goes on in the brain of negative individuals. In this study, researchers asked the question: If an invisible fearful face was presented, would the brain be more reactive if a person had a fearful disposition or a general negative disposition to the world? Using a procedure known as continuous flash suppression, the researchers were able to blind the eye that was being shown the fearful face. They then looked at the brain's fear processor -- the amygdala -- to see if there were any differences between people who were predisposed to being fearful versus those who had a more general negative way of viewing the world.
This study found that negative affectivity (Type D people) showed greater activation of the amygdala to invisible fear -- more than even people who had a predisposition to be fearful. This implied that if you viewed the world in an overall negative way, when you saw others being afraid, your brain was more reactive than other people, thereby painting a different picture of the world.
In the real world outside of the laboratory, this has significant implications. All around you, every day, there are people who are afraid. Just take a look at the volatility of the stock market if you want any evidence. Having a negative lens of anger, guilt, disgust and fear just makes your brain react to this even worse -- you get caught up in a vicious cycle. Life and your genes lead to a negative attitude. This negative attitude then affects your brain in a way that cements that negative attitude. To address this, then, you have to give up the habit of negative affectivity, but this requires more than just forcing yourself to be positive.
As far as negative people are concerned, there is a "reason" to be angry, guilty, disgusted or fearful. And this would be fine if they were not more physically and psychologically distressed. They are unable to give up this way of looking at the world, because it protects them in a curious way. Deep down, people often believe that if they are angry, the world will not interfere with them. If they are guilty, they have already attacked themselves, so they are safe from the attack of others. And if they are disgusted, they will be safe from interacting with others and will live safely in their own cocoons.
The problem is: You may be safe from others, but you are hurting yourself. You choose the control of hurting yourself over the unpredictability of being hurt by others. This tradeoff is a dubious one, because for one, it strains your heart -- literally.
How, then, can you change this cycle? There are many strategies, but two that I will mention here are the following:
- Meditation has been shown to decrease negative affectivity. In beginners, it may do this by decreasing amygdala activation, and in experienced meditators it affects brain regions that cause greater self-acceptance.
- Based on techniques related to mindfulness therapy, another way to distance yourself from negative attitudes is to train your brain to watch your anger or guilt rather than being caught up in them the moment they arise. Distress is caused not just by these negative stances but by how we pay attention to them. When we cannot control what we attend to (e.g. if you only attend to your distress), we start to believe that is who we are.
It pays to address and stop this vicious cycle of negativity. Remember: It may protect you from others, but it does not protect you from yourself.