Is negative thinking sabotaging your happiness?

17 Apr 2014

Are you a brooder? Do you analyse otherwise insignificant interactions or situations over and over until you've extracted some sort of meaning from them?

This tendency to look for the worst in situations that are neither positive nor negative is known as negative interpretation bias, and research has linked it to emotional and behavioural disorders like anxiety and depression.

Although we all encounter a host of neutral situations on any given day, we don't all look at them in the same way.

For instance, if a friend calls to cancel an appointment because she's not feeling well, or someone you're chatting to stifles a yawn in the middle of the story you're telling, you could interpret it in two very different ways, depending on your frame of mind.

On one hand, you could simply take it at face value: your friend is ill and can't meet up with you; or the person you're conversing with is tired, so they yawned.

But if you have a tendency to over-think things, you might wonder whether there isn't some underlying reason behind it: you might worry that your friend is fibbing because she doesn't enjoy spending time with you, or that the yawn was actually an indication of boredom.

Trapped in a cycle of negativity

Cognitive psychologist Paula Hertel has been investigating the effects of brooding, and believes that putting too much focus on ourselves can lead to further cognitive biases and ultimately, symptoms of depression.

She explains that brooding can also be triggered by a particular life event, such as a chance meeting with an old friend, or leaving a job you've held for years.

"Our research shows that making negative interpretations of ambiguity causes people initially classified as non-brooders to ruminate about a negative event in their lives," says Hertel. "And one can imagine that certain life events might kick-start such a bad habit."

Her most recent study indicates that those of us who are more focused on ourselves are also more likely to interpret situations or encounters as being negative.

So the more self-focused you are, the more likely you are to have a pessimistic view on life, which leads to further brooding, and more unconstructive thought patterns. Essentially, you become trapped in a cycle of your own negativity.

This negative frame of mind can affect everything from productivity to creativity, and has even been shown to impact our ability to learn.

Breaking out of the cycle

But what can we do to avoid this trap of negative thinking, or for those of us who may already be caught up in such a cycle, how can we break out of it?

"Our work suggests that practice with benign interpretations would be helpful, but we have yet to find evidence for this claim," says Hertel.

"Brooders stubbornly hold onto their habits, almost as if they believe that ultimately they will be able to change themselves by concentrating on their own deficiencies."

One way we can work toward unlearning this negative habit is to make a conscious effort to choose a more optimistic view of things whenever there are several ways to interpret a situation or scenario.

In order to be more present, rather than constantly worrying about what could happen or what another person's actions might mean, Hertel also recommends working on the development of attentional control through mindfulness meditation.

How to practice mindfulness

Health and wellness expert and author Dr. Kathy Gruver points out that while the brain is an amazing thing, one of its flaws is that it can't tell the difference between what we are imagining and what is really happening.

"Every time we replay a negative experience or brood about something, we are reactivating the stress response," explains Dr. Gruver. "But there are some great mindfulness practices that can help."

She notes that three of her favourite practices are affirmations, visualization and meditation, and shares the following quick tips for putting them into action:


We have thousands of thoughts in a day and, unfortunately, the majority of them are negative. But we can use affirmations to change them into positive ones. Make affirmations short and in the present, like 'I am healthy.'


Visualization is simply using our daydreams and fantasies to take us to a positive place and keep us from dwelling in the negative.


Mini meditations can be done anywhere by simply concentrating on your breath. On the inhale, you can think, 'I am,' and on the exhale think, 'at peace.' This stops that stress response and changes our attitudes to positive ones.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 April 2014 14:11
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Marianne Stenger

Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges, one of Australia’s leading online education providers. She covers everything from life hacks and career development to learning tips and the latest research in education.

You can connect with her on Google+ Google+ and find her latest articles here.

Twitter: @MarianneStenger

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