I was surprised to read recently about a study (Averill 1980) that asked participants to rate each of 558 emotion words. Sixty two per cent of the emotion words were considered negative, and 38 percent were rated positive. Then, poking around on Google, I found a reference to another study of emotional language in English and Spanish both, with negative emotions at 50%, positive at 30%, and neutral at 20%. I was even more surprised to find that this is a pretty well established phenomenon.
I take this to mean that as we look around, as we think about ourselves, our friends, our work, our day, we are wired to notice the negative, to put a negative spin on what we see.
So there must be some evolutionary advantage to this negative bent—my first thought is that it helps us be prepared for, and survive, the random bad things that can happen. Think of Noah deciding the rain might not stop, or farmers keeping back extra seed in case the crop fails, so there’s some to plant next year—that sort of thing. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
I’m also intrigued that people are typically happier as they get older. I wonder about that. After all, since we’re talking about older people, it’s hard to see any evolutionary advantage—there’s no mechanism to pass this trait on. Or is there? Are happier people more valuable to the group, to the extent that they can influence, or contribute to, the survival of the group?
In thinking about this negative vs. positive bent, it occurs to me that when I’ve been faced with the need—or desire—to make a major change, I’ve been most successful either when I’ve had nothing to lose, or when I’ve been buoyed by optimism.
Can we consciously use this these 2 (almost) contradictory patterns of thought—our automatic negative perceptions, and our powerful optimistic positive energy—when we see the need for change? If so, how can we make it work?