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Peterjanvanderburgh Group

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Negative Psychology

Positive psychology is everywhere: at the workplace (especially in big multinational corporations), in schools, and definitely on the pages of this magazine. While it is difficult to pinpoint any rigid definition of positive psychology, the general idea is that it is positive because of its emphasis on positive experiences, events, and character traits.

Negative Psychology

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I want to question all this positivity and argue that focusing on the negative is better for our mental health. And I take my inspiration from an author who has been widely used or rather abused, as a poster-boy of positive psychology in the popular press: Marcel Proust.

This is the opposite of the positivity of positive psychology. You just can't do this if you are focusing only on positive experiences and character traits. Embracing your own negative experiences and character traits is the exact opposite of positive psychology. It is Negative Psychology.

Proust's endorsement aside, we have solid empirical reasons to prefer negative psychology to its positive counterpart. The main reason for this is cognitive dissonance. We all have done things we wish we hadn't. And alas we can't just forget about these episodes. The question is: What do we do with them? How do we process the highly inconvenient information that we have behaved in a way that is less than ideal?

As erasing this information is not an option, one might think that ignoring it is the second-best option. And this is indeed what seems to follow from positive psychology's emphasis on positive experiences and character traits. If we focus on these, this entails that we focus away from anything negative, including the negative episodes in our past. The problem is that these inconvenient pieces of information about your past keep on resurfacing when you least expect them. And this makes it difficult to have positive thoughts about yourself as part of your mind knows that you are not as superb as you make yourself out to be. And this conflict leads to cognitive dissonance, with all its known downstream problems.

Positive psychology has had a good run. But in the midst of all the negativity that this year has brought, focusing on the positive is just plainly delusional and not something that can be maintained in the long run. Even for the most ethical and virtuous ones of us, accepting ourselves implies accepting all the vanities, pettiness, procrastination, anger, jealousy in our past (and present). Focusing on these leads to a healthier and more sustainable self-image. This is why we are better off with Negative Psychology.

Bence Nanay, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Cambridge University and the holder of a multi-million Euro ERC Grant on integrating philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience.

Wherever you turn, be it pop psychology sections at bookstores, self-help gurus, or even personal growth seminars, the proponents of positive psychology will tell you that the way toward growth and healing is to dismiss your negative thoughts and adopt positive thoughts about yourself, your relationships, and your situation.

As a therapist and workshop facilitator specializing in addiction, trauma, and cultural shame, what's often missing from these overarching directives is either the misunderstanding of negative thoughts or a misplaced belief that a person can willfully push their negative thoughts to the side and substitute them with more positive ones.

In recent years, there's been a growing effort to educate people about trauma-informed care. This is a recognition that we must delve deeper into why a person can carry such negative or distorted views about themselves, their abilities, and their future, based on being impacted by adversity, neglect, abuse, or trauma.

Common positive psychology would have you replace these negative thoughts with an alternate positive one. But if it were that easy, we would live in a world without the need to acknowledge and heal from trauma.

Exploration means a willingness and comfort level with addressing the neglect, trauma, or lack of validation that led to the negative thoughts in the first place, no matter the time needed to devote to the cause.

Everyone, especially here in America, wants a quick fix. While there are some folks who miraculously heal (from negative thoughts, addictions, wounds, etc.), the majority of us will need much more time than what's promised by glossy brochures, books, or the words of your favorite self-help expert.

Happiness, well-being, human freedom, and life events are interconnected. Nevertheless, the debate about human well-being struggles to find an exact definition. Literature debates on the importance of positive psychology or adverse effects of negative psychology in the well-being context discuss separately. However, both counter each other but have their significance and indisputable fact. Human psychology evolves around determinism and Free Will. One type of determinism is hard, while the other is soft. Individuals who are adamant about and embrace acceptance of chances are driven by their nature and psychology to choose negative behaviors under hard determinism. They give up their free will, whereas soft determinists use it to make choices and behave positively. However, the researchers looked at negative psychology as a useful aspect and positive psychology's dark side. We argued that there are reasons to suppose that chances can develop into options and vice versa. From a well-being perspective, negative and positive psychological strengths and weaknesses can be investigated. From the literature review, useful hypotheses for future research have been derived from our synthesis.

Negative affectivity (NA), or negative affect, is a personality variable that involves the experience of negative emotions and poor self-concept.[1] Negative affectivity subsumes a variety of negative emotions, including anger, contempt, disgust, guilt, fear,[2] and nervousness. Low negative affectivity is characterized by frequent states of calmness and serenity, along with states of confidence, activeness, and great enthusiasm.

Individuals differ in negative emotional reactivity.[3] Trait negative affectivity roughly corresponds to the dominant personality factor of anxiety/neuroticism that is found within the Big Five personality traits as emotional stability.[4] The Big Five are characterized as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Neuroticism can plague an individual with severe mood swings, frequent sadness, worry, and being easily disturbed,[1][3] and predicts the development and onset of all "common" mental disorders.[5] Research shows that negative affectivity relates to different classes of variables: Self-reported stress and (poor) coping skills,[1][6][7] health complaints, and frequency of unpleasant events.[8] Weight gain and mental health complaints are often experienced as well.

People who express high negative affectivity view themselves and a variety of aspects of the world around them in generally negative terms.[1] Negative affectivity is strongly related to life satisfaction. Individuals high in negative affect will exhibit, on average, higher levels of distress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction, and tend to focus on the unpleasant aspects of themselves, the world, the future, and other people, and also evoke more negative life events.[8] The similarities between these affective traits and life satisfaction have led some researchers to view both positive and negative affect with life satisfaction as specific indicators of the broader construct of subjective well-being.

Negative affect arousal mechanisms can induce negative affective states as evidenced by a study conducted by Stanley S. Seidner on negative arousal and white noise. The study quantified reactions from Mexican and Puerto Rican participants in response to the devaluation of speakers from other ethnic origins.[9]

Studies have indicated that negative affect has important, beneficial impacts on cognition and behavior. These developments were a departure from earlier psychological research, which was characterized by a unilateral emphasis on the benefits of positive affect.[13] Both states of affect influence mental processes and behavior.[14]

Benefits of negative affect are present in areas of cognition including perception, judgement, memory and interpersonal personal relations.[13][14] Since negative affect relies more on cautious processing than preexisting knowledge, people with negative affect tend to perform better in instances involving deception, manipulation, impression formation, and stereotyping. Negative affectivity's analytical and detailed processing of information leads to fewer reconstructive-memory errors, whereas positive mood relies on broader schematic to thematic information that ignores detail.[15] Thus, information processing in negative moods reduces the misinformation effect and increases overall accuracy of details.[13] People also exhibit less interfering responses to stimuli when given descriptions or performing any cognitive task.[13]

People are notoriously susceptible to forming inaccurate judgments based on biases and limited information. Evolutionary theories propose that negative affective states tend to increase skepticism and decrease reliance on preexisting knowledge.[16] Consequently, judgmental accuracy is improved in areas such as impression formation, reducing fundamental attribution error, stereotyping, and gullibility.[13] While sadness is normally associated with the hippocampus, it does not produce the same side effects that would be associated with feelings of pleasure or excitement. Sadness correlates with feeling blue or the creation of tears, while excitement may cause a spike in blood pressure and one's pulse. As far as judgment goes, most people think about how they themselves feel about a certain situation. They will jump right to their current mood when asked a question. However, some mistake this process when using their current mood to justify a reaction to a stimulus. If you're sad, yet only a little bit, chances are your reactions and input will be negative as a whole.


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