A friend’s son was just offered an exciting promotion at work. He is relatively low on the totem pole of his global tech company, and he has been there only a short while. But during that time, he has managed to connect with and become the “answer man” for many people across the organization.

It was a big deal when he was tapped for a promotion by senior management. So then why—with many reasons to feel proud and excited about the offer—did he let a single comment from his current manager totally demoralize him and make him question his ability to handle the new role? The manager’s comment? “I don’t think you’re ready for this promotion.”

What the boss was really saying—“You’ve come a long way, but you still have more to learn in your current role.”

What my friend’s son heard—“You are not ready for this promotion. You don’t have the right background for it, and you are going to fail.” 

This young man had dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of data points attesting to his value to the company. He received phone calls regularly from people asking for his help and thanking him for saving the day. And yet, just one comment from one person…and all of those phone calls, kudos and thank yous went out the window. He believed that voice of insecurity in his head instead of the many data points he had accumulated.

In the movie Pretty Woman, Richard Gere tells Julia Roberts, a down-on-her-luck prostitute, that she is a very bright, very special woman. Her reply—“The bad stuff is easier to believe. Did you ever notice that?”

What’s with us? Some call it “imposter syndrome” in which otherwise competent and intelligent people are riddled with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. But in her upcoming book, Good Morning, I Love You, Shauna Shapiro, PhD, explains “negativity bias” as something that is rooted in early mankind when it was critical for human beings to be on high alert and insecure for fear that a wild animal would attack them. 

I spoke to Dr. Shapiro last week—and read her book this past weekend—in preparation for an upcoming podcast with her. Negativity bias is one of the most pervasive elements of human behavior, and yet experts rarely provide solutions for it. Instead most people—women, in particular—are stuck in their own version of Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian, eagerly accepting themselves as never “enough.” But that would be untrue.

The fact is, not being good enough is not a fact. Nor is it truth. It is the long-term version of our preprogrammed evolutionary roots to remain on high alert for danger in all forms and to focus on the negative…combined with a lifetime of reinforcing those fears and perceptions. Since “practice makes perfect” in all forms, our constant focus on the negative reinforces those negative reactions and hardwires the fight-or-flight response in our brains and our bodies. We have become expert at viewing ourselves and our world through the lens that we are not enough. 

Ouch! What a sad and self-destructive way to live.

The good news, according to Dr. Shapiro, is that negativity bias does not have to be a life sentence thanks to the concept of neuroplasticity—our brain’s ability to create new pathways and connections. We simply have to mindfully change our perceptions and our reactions and, over time, create new pathways.

OK, if it were so simple, we would all do it, right? Well, yes, it does take some emotional commitment…a whole lot of repetition…and time to shift a lifetime’s worth of autonomic and ingrained responses. But it’s doable and, honestly, not really all that hard.

There are three core elements to counteracting our negativity bias…

Intention: Research has shown that simply setting the intention to be happier actually makes people happier, and that in turn sets up new pathways in the brain and gets all of those “happiness synapses” firing. Throughout life, we go where we focus. We have a running joke in our family—when my husband first dragged me to ski among the trees, he told me not to focus on avoiding trees (which makes you look at the trees), but instead to focus on skiing in the spaces. Well, when it comes to intention and happiness, if we shift our focus from our shortcomings and fears to creating positive outcomes and successes, our body follows. 

Attention: Take that intention and focus on it…for 20 seconds because that’s the minimum amount of time required to install an experience into our long-term memory.

Attitude: Make those positive experiences vivid. See the details. Deeply feel the pride and well of emotion when you complete a task successfully or when someone thanks you for your efforts. We need to bathe ourselves in the good feelings rather than glossing over them on our way to the next fearful task.

And practice it all. Again, we are looking to overcome a lifetime of negativity and fear, which means that it will take repeated and conscious efforts to allow ourselves to feel the happiness as easily and readily as we feel criticism. Dr. Shapiro offers a number of behaviors that can be practiced each day in order to enjoy our positive emotions and physiological responses. My favorites…

  1. Smiling meditation: Simply smile—literally. Even if it’s forced at the start or you simply put a pencil between your teeth—smiling releases happy chemicals in your body.
  2. Be generous: Do something nice. It feels good. It doesn’t have to be big. Compliment someone. Hold open a door. Give another driver your parking space. Surprise someone with flowers. 
  3. Pay attention to awe and wonder: Enjoy a dazzling sunset or sunrise…waves in a stormy ocean…dogs playing in the park…a toddler’s delight at learning a new skill. In my family, we regularly call one another to come look at an incredible sunrise or sunset…and when our dog does something irresistibly adorable. Take a moment to feel the feelings that go along with simple yet awesome experiences rather than rushing past them. We are surrounded by these moments if you just open your eyes and heart to them.  

Given the choice, we would all far prefer to live in a happy place than an unhappy one. Well, the truth is that we have that choice, and we can live in that happy place. It just takes 20 seconds to start the journey.