This post was originally written in 2015 and has since been updated with new research, examples, and advice.
Pretend you’re a caveman.
You’re in your cave preparing for a hunt, but something outside seems dangerous. You hear violent sounds you don’t understand.
You have two choices: Skip the hunt, spend the night hungry, but live another day; or risk death and go outside.
Hold onto that thought. We’ll be getting back to that.
Now, imagine you’re driving to work. While getting off the highway, someone cuts you off. You slam on your brakes. You know the feeling that’s coming. A tense anger rises up. Your fingers clench the steering wheel.
It’s enough to make you feel horrible all day. You might be less productive at work and distracted during meetings. You might try to counterbalance the feeling with a quick shot of endorphins from junk food, mindless web surfing, or time-wasting YouTube videos. This only compounds the problem.
This is like taking short-term unhappiness and investing it in a long-term, high-yield unhappiness investment plan, ensuring belly flab and career stagnation for years to come.
So why does this one minor thing—getting cut off—have such a powerful effect on us? Why does one negative experience ruin an otherwise great day?
The answer has to do with our friend, the Caveman. Research shows that our brains evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It kept us safe from danger. But in modern days, where physical danger is minimal, it often just gets in the way.
It’s called the negativity bias.