Have you been known to scream and believe the world is falling apart when equipment breaks? If you’re like me, mechanical problems send you over the edge. Whether it is the waterer freezing, a drunk hitting our fence, the water pump quitting on a 90-degree day or the furnace I once had to fix in a blizzard – I immediately get negative because I’m scared of what can happen and know my mechanical skills are a huge weakness.

Payn michele
Cause Matters Corp.
Michele Payn speaks and writes to help the people of agriculture have tough conversations about m...

Come to find out, there is a reason my thoughts go negative (besides my impatience). Negativity bias. It is a condition few know about but we all have. Humans come wired with it – whether we like it or not. Consider how our ancestors lived in danger: They knew a lion had impact on their survival while a beautiful sunset did not. Our brains developed to pay attention to the negative things (the lion in this case) for our own protection while looking past the more positive.

In other words, our brains developed this negativity bias to keep us safe by giving us enough caution to monitor and watch threats. The result is that negative events or possible threats have a greater impact on our psychological well-being than positive things. Neuroscience even shows there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli.

Why? Studies repeatedly show our brains misinterpret information in a way that sees more threats and issues than what are really there. This negativity bias is a biological function that served a historical purpose in helping humans survive, but now hurts happiness and wellness. It can cause you to dwell on dark thoughts, hurt your relationships and make it difficult to maintain an optimistic outlook.

That condemning remark from a co-worker or classmate? You’re far more likely to stew on it longer than the three compliments you heard the same day. Likewise, I remember a mistake I made with one heifer far longer than successes. Farming is fraught with the chance to beat ourselves up and our stubborn, independent nature feeds into that.


The good news is that positivity and negativity are habits; you can train your mind to think of the good. If you constantly think of the negative, that is what your brain will go to as its normal. But if you look for the positive daily, you’ll be able to overcome your negativity bias more easily. Just as a cow can be trained to a new routine, so can your brain!

A scientist friend of mine is president of her church ladies’ group and provided a great example of this. Because of her work training, she decided to ask the ladies about their most positive experience since the group’s last meeting, as well as what they’re grateful for. She sometimes must pry positives out of a few of the ladies who are in the habit of being negative.

“Recently, one lady’s positive experience was, ‘Well, at least I haven’t got COVID,’  and she then rattled off that everyone has it,” she said. “I knew she went to Utah with her sister to see their sister whom they had not seen in 20 years. The trip was arranged by their niece, who is a friend of mine. She looked surprised when I asked, ‘Didn’t you just have a big trip to Utah with your sisters?’ then [she] launched into what a great time she had,” she shared. “Others had told me that she was primed to complain about the food at our recent dinner, so she had a negativity bias before the meeting even started. By refocusing to the positive, we tempered that discussion later. It’s also an example of how negativity bias can block out positive experiences.”

What can you do to overcome negativity bias to be sure you’re not blocking out positive experiences? Psychologists recommend a variety of ways to fight the tendency toward negative thinking.

  1. Stop the negative self-talk. Pay attention to what thoughts go through your mind. For me, I fear not being able to take care of mechanical problems that can hurt my family or cattle, but I do know how to turn to people. Texting pictures to the HVAC guy meant that I could fix the furnace during a blizzard and stop the temperature in our house from dropping.
  2. Reframe the situation. How do you talk to yourself? It’s huge in how you interpret events. A foster mom recently said she looks past hurtful comments and behavior rather than assuming the worst. “I learned it is usually a ‘them’ problem and not a ‘me’ problem, and unless they are willing to bring up some issue or concern to me as a friend, it’s not worth my energy.” Today, people are experiencing a lot of unseen problems. I try to exercise grace by reminding myself I don’t know their whole story. The same may be true with that employee who’s been struggling.
  3. Establish new patterns. Meditation, journaling, prayer and thought exercises all have been proven to help your mental models. Listen to upbeat music, read a good book or exercise – whatever works for you. This isn’t a made-up issue; negativity bias is a biological function that is clearly impacting mental well-being. And a walk to the back 40 may be just what you need. Sometimes cattle thrive in different groups after struggling; the same is true for your brain and how you talk with it.
  4. Work on mental restructuring. Change the way you look at life. Thomas Edison had his workshop burn to the ground but chose to invite his family and friends to enjoy a show of a fire like they’d never seen. Moving on is critical; sometimes that means walking away, other times it is reframing your perspective.
  5. Savor the positive moments. That perfect cup of coffee, the sunrise in the rural solitude, cattle grazing on pasture, a walk on the beach, making memories with friends, a beautiful homebred cow, watching your kids find their groove, that special trip, a moment with a loved one … celebrate the joy. Take a couple minutes to focus on those wonderful moments, replay them in your memory and focus on the wonderful feelings the memory evokes. Keep them stored away for when the world gets ugly.

There’s a lot wrong in the dairy business – milk prices, weather, feed prices, lack of vets, etc. but even more that is going right. Don’t let the dairy negativity bias steal your joy from what’s going well in this business – the great people, your independence, working with cows, feeding people.

Steve Maraboli summed it up well when he said, “Fuel yourself with positivity and let that propel you into positive actions.”