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Focus on the positive to cope with problems

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Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010 11:00 am

How can we cope in such troubled times? The answer is simple, but not easy – we have to work at it because it doesn’t come naturally.

To illustrate, try this memory test. 1) What were you doing the last time you burnt yourself? 2) What were you driving the last time you crashed? 3) When was the last time a doctor gave you bad news? 4) Where were you when you last tripped in front of a group? 5) Where were you the last time someone flirted with your sweetheart? 6) Who gave you your last unfavorable job review? 7)  When was the last time someone ate the last of the stuff you wanted? 8) What were you wearing the last time the mail didn’t contain bills? 9) What color car most recently drove behind you at a safe distance? 10) About how much toothpaste is left in the tube you used this morning?

Did you notice that the questions became increasingly difficult to answer, despite that the referenced events were probably more recent? That shows that we are programmed to remember the negative and disregard the positive.

If we crash our car or get cancer, we could die. Those things get our full and undivided attention. If our finances, our integrity, or our reputation is at risk, we find it worrisome, and will focus somewhat, but not as much as when our lives are at risk. When life is cruising along with no major bumps in the road, we don’t bother to notice much of anything. All the meals the waitress brings correctly are forgotten. We don’t use space storing each time we get to the bus stop early enough to catch our bus.

Because we’re biologically programmed to focus on the negative, we tend to create media experiences that are negatively skewed. If a newspaper reported that all the police officers that worked yesterday arrived home safely, we wouldn’t read it. If political candidates admitted that both sides have fine ideas and good intentions, no one would vote. If movies were about two kids who grew up in the same neighborhood, got married, remained faithful, successfully raised wonderful children, then aged gracefully together, no one would pay to see them.

The only way to combat our negative bias is to use a deliberate plan to modify our tendencies.

If you decide that you’re sick and tired of the constant negative focus, make a commitment to yourself and to the ones you love to focus consciously on the positive. Begin each day by making a list of five delightful things you’re anticipating. Review your list at lunch time and add to it if you wish. In the evening, make a list of five things for which you’re truly grateful. Throughout the day, limit your media exposure to only that which is necessary and beneficial. Traffic reports, if they will cause you to alter your route and get to work more efficiently, are fine, but if you’re only going to drive the same route you’ve always driven no matter what the traffic report says, turn the dial!


Marlo Archer is a licensed psychologist and has been a member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Behavioral Health Network since 2001. Reach her at (480) 705-5007 or at

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