Reflecting on the past year
Celebrate your best moments and thwart the negativity bias
Image: Free-Photos on Pixabay
As we stand on the threshold of a new year, many of us have already thought up some resolutions. Whether it’s to be a better student, write more dissertation pages per week, or something non-academic, such as doing more sports or eating healthier, many of us will be looking to the next year as an opportunity to improve ourselves in some way.
“A bad year”?
The implication with all of this planning for the future is that we are not yet our optimal selves. This can lead to us being all too willing to put the past behind us, even a whole year. Especially if 2019 had a lot of tough moments, either in the realm of academics or personal life, it’s all too easy to write it off as “a bad year” without reflecting on all the good things that happened.
This tendency isn’t just something that individuals do. For Swiss Academic Software as a company, 2019 was a bit frustrating, to put it mildly. While development on Citavi Web made great progress, a couple major roadblocks occurred which made it impossible to start beta testing as soon as we had originally planned: technical issues related to cloud communication have led to us having to postpone both an update and a big server move that need to happen before Citavi Web can be opened for testing.
If we as a company look back at our main goal for 2019 and judge the year only on that, we would understandably be upset. However, 2019 had a lot of great moments as well: many new Citavi users around the world, new team members, more interaction with customers through our blog and social media channels, new add-ons, and a re-designed Picker and other helpful features, including chapter bibliographies.
Why people tend to focus on the negative
If you, like our company, felt that 2019 was also a “bad year” but then really look back at all that happened, you’ll invariably find some good moments. Maybe you had a breakup…but it brought you closer to your friends. Maybe you failed a business class…but then it made you realize that graphic design is what you enjoy more. The good things don’t have to be related to a negative event, either. You might have learned something new, traveled somewhere memorable, or made a new friend. Little moments count, too: a wonderful evening out with friends, a beautiful sunrise you remember, a nice compliment you got from your advisor.
When we look for what went well during the year in addition to what didn’t, our overall assessment becomes a lot more nuanced. So why do we tend to focus more on the negative? Can’t we just “look on the bright side”?
Unfortunately, this tendency is something that humans are evolutionarily wired to do. Instead of enjoying and remembering a sunny day, our ancestors had to notice and remember important signs of danger, such as a hungry-looking lion on the horizon. Even in modern society where for most of us danger is no longer imminent, negative experiences have much more of an impact on us than positive ones in nearly every area of human endeavor.
Psychologists now have a term for this tendency for us to remember and dwell much more on disagreeable events: the “negativity bias” or the “negativity effect”. It explains why the one critical comment from your professor remains in your head all day, while you tend forget the many positive things she said.
Media companies use this phenomenon to their advantage. Ever wonder why the news seems to show one catastrophe after another? In a given day, a lot of good things happen as well, but humans see the negative ones as more important, so the news shows an inordinate amount of negative events.
Why it’s important to be aware of the negativity bias
Although it may seem harmless, negativity bias could have harmful outcomes on your life. For example, in a study by Suzanne Segerstrom law students who had a positive outlook (and were thus presumably able to counteract their innate negativity bias) tended to make considerably more money 10 years after law school. Other studies suggest that a positive attitude can beneficially impact physical and mental health.
You might argue that these participants might be naturally optimistic people. For the more pessimistically inclined, is it even possible to counteract an innate negativity bias?
While it will likely never disappear entirely, a number of psychologists and neuroscientists think that it is possible to either lessen the negativity associated with unpleasant events or change your relationship to positive experiences so that you can focus on and remember them better over time.
One thing that can help is shifting your view to take stock of your achievements rather than focusing on everything that didn’t turn out as you hoped. So, before you start washing your hands of the last twelve months and start making new plans for the next dozen, set aside some time to reflect on your successes.
Maybe your dissertation isn’t as far along as you like, but you have written and gotten great feedback on one chapter all while excelling in your teaching duties. Maybe you feel as if you’re still years away from your degree, but you finished the last of your required general education courses this semester. Perhaps your greatest moment was personal, and you were able to help out a friend in a time of need. Try not to judge whether a success was big or small, but to simply acknowledge it and your achievement.
Bringing more positivity into each day
Of course, engaging in this practice only once a year won’t help you counteract an ingrained negativity bias long-term. For that, we recommend taking a cue from the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, a mental training program that has been shown to help participants deal better with stress by teaching them meditation, breathing exercises, and other mindfulness practices over the course of eight weeks. Each week has a specific focus, and for one of them, participants are asked to stop and notice a pleasant moment in their day by pausing to experience it fully for at least three minutes. During this time you should take note of your physical sensations in the moment, and how you experience it: what you smell, details you see, how your body feels, etc. Then, at the end of the day, record the event and try to recall as many details as you can.
What’s the point of this exercise? It’s all-too-easy to simply forget the many good things that happen in the course of a day and instead remember the negative experiences only. But when you know you have to fully concentrate on a pleasant experience and then record it later on, you pay more attention to it and are more likely to remember it as a result. The written diary of pleasant events then gives you a record of the good things that happened. You can always look back at it to jog your memory and help you re-live the nice moments you had.
In addition, like many of the other techniques taught in the MBSR program, this one grounds you in the present. When you truly experience a pleasant moment, you’re living fully in the here and now instead of focusing on your future plans. If you’re someone who gets very anxious about the future and whose mind is always “busy”, this exercise can give your head a welcome breather.
That’s not to say that you should always live in the moment and never make plans, of course. Think of this activity as a strategy to bring yourself back to life as it actually is – and not how it exists in your memories of the past or in your hopes and fears for the future. It’s a chance to remind yourself that there are already so many good things you can experience close by, regardless of what else is happening that day or will happen later.
So, by all means, go ahead and make those New Year’s Resolutions for 2020, but don’t forget to celebrate all that you’ve already accomplished and to remember to notice the good moments that happen each day. It’s our hope that this mindset will help you get through 2020 with a little less stress, and a little more peace and calm.
What were some of your most meaningful successes in 2019? Share them with us on our Facebook page – we’d love to celebrate them with you!