Find Your Happy Place
Negative by Nature
Sadly, I did not inherit my father's sunny disposition. I'm not a pessimist, exactly, but I can be a real fretter, inclined to contemplate the worst-case scenario. I can't count the times I've returned from a trip I didn't want to take or a social event I didn't want to attend only to realize that the heavy dread I'd experienced beforehand was far worse than the event itself. And I tend to linger on my mistakes, "crimes" like talking too much at parties or forgetting to send in a school permission slip the day it's due.
Almost every woman I know succumbs at times to the same kinds of paranoid, persecuted thoughts that keep me up at night. One good friend of mine -- who's too busy to get together as often as we did when we were both home with babies -- routinely greets me by saying, "You hate me now, don't you?" Another friend has been telling me for the past three years that she's about to lose her job. She's had several great performance reviews, but she still believes she'll get the ax: "In this economy, it's just a matter of time before I'm downsized."
This grimness may not be a fluke. It turns out my father had an unfair advantage in the optimism department. Studies show that women are far likelier than men to engage in negative thinking: We worry more, have a greater awareness of risk, have higher rates of depression and anxiety, feel less comfortable with uncertainty, and are more apt to blame ourselves when things go wrong.
A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that girls as young as 3 are more likely than boys to believe bad events in the past might recur. "Even in childhood, girls have more anxieties and worry more intensely," says Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, the study's author. Women may have it worse, but all human beings, male and female, have a "negativity bias," says John T. Cacioppo, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Our brains literally react more strongly -- with a surge of electrical activity -- to negative stimuli than to neutral or even positive information. Dr. Cacioppo believes this is left over from our evolutionary past: "Thousands of years ago it was really important to run from anything that looked like a tiger, even if it turned out to be only a rock."
There's still a place for thinking negatively today: When you anticipate what might go wrong, you're better able to plan for those possibilities. When you think about how you messed up, you learn from your mistakes. But negativity isn't the best plan when it causes tiny setbacks, such as a spat with your husband or a bounced check, to turn into major preoccupations that stop you from enjoying your life and moving forward.
A chronically dark outlook can also push people away. "Let's face it: Negative people are no fun to be around," says Kathleen Hall, author of A Life in Balance. As a result, she says, you don't get as many social invitations, which makes you feel even more negative, and the vicious circle continues. Even if you aren't being rejected because of your grim attitude, you're shortchanging your relationships, says Steven C. Hayes, PhD, a University of Nevada, Reno, psychologist and author of Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. That's because you're too busy mulling over your mistakes, shortcomings, and frustrations to focus on your husband, your kids, and your friends.
Negativity also does a serious number on your health. If you're sick, you can make yourself sicker by dwelling on your fears. "If you expect something to be harmful, then it frequently is harmful," says Richard Kradin, MD, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing. And if you're healthy but constantly thinking that things will go wrong -- your child will get hurt, your party will be a flop, your boss will hate your proposal -- you can worry yourself sick. This may explain why people with a sunnier view of the world and of themselves -- those who, like my father, can routinely accentuate the positive -- may actually live longer, healthier, and happier lives.