Making Peace With Your Inner Pessimist

The explosion in neuroscience over the past 20 years has revealed, among many things, that the human brain has a built-in bias toward the negative. In the world of evolutionary psychology this makes a great deal of sense. If we don’t stay alive, other biological imperatives like “Where’s the food?” and “Where’s the sex?” are moot. The brain has evolved to scan the environment for what’s wrong in preference to what’s right. Author and neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes, “The negativity bias fosters or intensifies…unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense.”

Exacerbating the problem, the world has become so complex and so “well-informed” that we are not only scanning the immediate environment for danger, the danger is being delivered to us moment to moment via TV, radio, PC, and smartphone from all over the planet. To further complicate the situation, the vast majority of media sources, which number in the thousands, follow the same negative bias that our brains do. What makes it to our eyes and ears is not the trend lines, which reveal a more stable and peaceful planet that ever, but the headlines—the critical incidents that evoke fear, horror, and outrage. In truth, for the great majority of humans on any given day in modernity, it is business as usual. But as Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack write, “News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen.” *

I propose that the modern epidemic of clinical depression and anxiety is deeply connected to the sheer magnitude of disorder daily infiltrating human awareness. Author and futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard observes that media is to society what the central nervous system is to individual consciousness. She notes that when our society’s central nervous system is relaying an exclusive diet of chaos and tragedy, we suffer—collectively and individually. I assert that these secondhand negative experiences, with time and repetition, become, in effect, our own experiences. Rick Hanson writes that “Negative experiences create vicious cycles by making you pessimistic, over-reactive, and inclined to go negative yourself.”

This negative bias, this “inner pessimist,” also informs the “inner critic” an internal, self-judging thought pattern whose purpose is to keep us well behaved and in line. Hanson observes that in the personal domain, the negative bias “highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles. Consequently, the mind continually tends to render unfair verdicts about a person’s character, conduct, and possibilities. The weight of those judgments can really wear you down.”

What do we do to quench the fires of the inner pessimist and its ally, the inner critic?

  1. Cultivate an observing self. We must begin to watch these pessimistic, self-critical thoughts and the resulting feelings as passing phenomena: not as who we are and not as incontestable facts of individual and collective existence.
  2. Challenge pessimistic and self-critical thoughts and anxious feelings. “Challenge” doesn’t mean suppress. As Carl Jung wrote, “What we resist persists.” But we can decline the invitation to take counsel with our negative bias.
  3. Calm yourself down. The modern autonomic nervous system (ANS) is like an engine being driven at 100 mph with too little lubrication.  You can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the ANS, in turn calming the thoughts and emotions.
  4. Create, intensify, and savor positive experiences. Do more of what brings you ease, joy, and genuine fulfillment. When you have these experiences take them in. There’s a reason people count their blessings and write gratitude lists. These tools are remarkably effective in offsetting the negative bias of the brain.
  5. Kill the previous four birds with one stone. I would rather say “Feed these four birds with one worm,” but you get the point. If you’re feeling that the first four recommendations are easier said than done, you’re right. But there is one tool that supports all these recommendations: mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a well-researched method for calming the mind, detaching from negative thoughts and feelings, and for literally thickening the parts of the prefrontal cortex of the brain responsible for generating the state of happiness.

Since there are many excellent and easily accessible resources for learning mindfulness meditation, I will list a few here rather than writing another instructional text on the subject. The key is to set up a daily practice, however short at the beginning. As many meditation instructors observe, the five minutes of mindfulness a day that you actually accomplish is superior to the thirty minutes that you don’t quite get around to.

Here is a link to a number of mindfulness meditation instructions (simple and guided!) at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Free Guided Meditations

My recommendation is to start with the “Breathing Meditation” in the morning, preferably just upon awakening, and the Body Scan Meditation” at least once during the day.

*Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.   Andrew Mack is a fellow at the Denver-based One Earth Future Foundation and director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.