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Can we make positive experiences count more?

Not long ago, I missed a school event for my son. He was giving a presentation and was excited to have both parents attend. I spoke briefly with the teacher’s aide about the date, made babysitting plans, noted it on my calendar, and reminded my husband. I never double-checked the date with anyone else at the school and disregarded the email that went out. Tuesday morning I woke to an email from my son’s teacher—we missed the event, which took place Monday night.

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While missing one school presentation isn't a massive parenting fail, I stewed about it for weeks. I felt hot with anger and guilt as I called and canceled the babysitter, and felt mortified as I told my son, who was crushed by the news. His teacher offered to reschedule for a lunch hour, but that simply wasn't a possibility with the rest of the family schedule. This ship had sailed. I replayed it in my head over and over again, enumerating my missteps and the ways I’d act differently if given another chance. This isn’t a new habit. I was swindled into buying a vacuum from a door-to-door salesman two years ago, and I still find myself experiencing feelings of failure as I clean the house. And it’s a similar pattern when I get myself into trouble and hurt my pride: I beat myself up by playing my mistakes on repeat, willing the past to change. It’s not merely a matter of pride, though that certainly can play a part. It’s a byproduct of the negativity bias—the notion that negative experiences tend to stick out in our minds far more prominently than positive ones. When we face difficult scenarios head-on, it can be much more intense for our minds than when we avoid them.

As psychologists Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer note in their study “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.” The adaptive nature of the negativity bias may be less vital in the present age. Perhaps I don’t need to dwell on a single purchase as if it were a matter of life or death; still, my mind performs mental gymnastics, placing unpleasant experiences at the forefront of my memory. Luckily, resisting the negativity bias is something our brains are also equipped to do. When we practice mindfulness, placing ourselves in the present moment, we can temper the effects of the negativity bias. By focusing on our breathing and our present surroundings, we can learn to let go of thoughts about the past and the future. The negativity bias strengthens if we allow ourselves to dwell in the past mindfulness encourages us to stay present and retrain our minds toward healthier patterns.

Bringing myself back to the present allows me to open myself to new experiences, and move forward without fear. I can learn from past mistakes without allowing them to rule my day-to-day life and can be mindful of the fact that for each failure, there are likely triumphs as well. “Good can still triumph in the end by force of numbers,” note Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Vohs, and Finkenauer. “Even though a bad event may have a stronger impact than a comparable good event, many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events.”

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