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The social sector has a negativity bias. Here’s what you can do about it.  

A Black man who seems overwhelmed by work.

Anyone who works in the nonprofit sector knows it’s not for the faint of heart. By necessity, the sector focuses on the negatives—the systems that are broken, the problems that need solving, the issues that are underfunded. And yet, this hyper-focus may be counterproductive.   

The burgeoning field of positive psychology suggests that humans have a default “negativity bias”—we disproportionately pay attention to and remember what goes wrong. (This is why we tend to remember that one negative piece of feedback while the positive comments fade away). This negativity bias is adaptive, as remembering what hurts us keeps us alive. However, our task as a sector is about more than survival. It’s about reimagining systems, facilitating change, and co-creating a better future. And for these tasks, focusing on the negatives can get in the way.  

Research has found that negatives narrow our vision. Negative emotions and focusing on what hurts create tunnel vision, heightening our ability to zero in on the immediate issue, but making it harder to think about the bigger picture or brighter future. By contrast, positive emotions and experiences broaden our perspectives and build up our mental resources, facilitating increased innovation, social connection, and solutions. Thus, the sector is faced with a paradox—our job is to focus on the world’s most wicked problems, yet constantly doing so can inhibit our ability to imagine a different future. 

The long-standing systemic challenges we face are not likely to be solved any time soon, and we should not avoid or ignore these problems. However, intentionally countering the negativity bias is likely to be good for both our personal mental health and the sector as a whole. How? Here are three simple, evidence-based practices that have been shown to boost your mood, well-being, and help you savor what is going well.  

1. Leverage the George Bailey Effect 

The 1946 holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, who is considering taking his life on Christmas Eve, because his problems feel unmanageable. Just then, angel-in-training Clarence intervenes. To prove to George just how much impact he has had on the world, Clarence shows him what would have happened to his town and loved ones if he had never existed. The movie ends with George realizing that his life was pretty wonderful after all. 

Psychologists have found that Clarence’s ploy is quite effective. When people reflect on how something positive in their lives might never have happened, it improves their mood. We tend to automatically adapt to current conditions, taking our circumstances for granted. However, thinking about how many things had to fall into place for you to get where you are today often sparks a renewed appreciation—a phenomenon dubbed the “George Bailey Effect.”  

To try this out for yourself, think or journal about something for which you are grateful—e.g., your health, your safety, a loved one, a special opportunity or experience. Consider all the things that had to happen for you to have this in your life (e.g., where and/or when you were born, the chances you took, the people you met, the circumstances that allowed you to be in a certain place and time). Reflect on how it makes you feel knowing that this thing was not guaranteed. Or think about what might have happened to your community if your nonprofit never existed. How does this change your perspective about your nonprofit’s impact?   

2. Savor and celebrate baby steps

In our sector, we often dismiss the positive impact we have on people’s lives as merely part of our jobs. What would it look like to intentionally savor this impact? We don’t have to wait until the systems are mended and inequity is eradicated. Instead, consider how you can celebrate small wins. Maybe you’ve had an inspired day at work or solved a problem you’ve been stuck on, or just one person thanked you for something you’ve done. Take a moment to appreciate this progress. Share the news with a co-worker or friend and celebrate together. Or keep an email folder for notes of thanks to look at when times get tough. You could also make “celebrating small wins” or “sharing gratitude and appreciation” a standing agenda item on team meetings to make sure that the positives don’t go unnoticed. Research has shown that sharing positive experiences with others is associated with increased positive mood, happiness, and even life satisfaction. 

3. Think of 3 good things 

One of the simplest—and most effective—positive psychology practices is the “Three Good Things” exercise. Write down three things that went well today, why it went well, and your role in making it happen. This exercise is powerful for two reasons. First, it helps you counter the negativity bias by realizing that good things do happen. Even on bad days, most people can think of three good things. Second, reflecting on why it went well and the role you played can help you discover your agency in bringing more good things into your life. Research has found that doing this daily for three weeks cultivates happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction and can reduce stress, anxiety, and burnout.  

In short, much like we rest our bodies at the end of a long day, we as a sector need to occasionally put down the weight of our work and soak in the positives. We must make time to be silly, joyous, grateful, and indulgent. So as we start the new year, let us bask in what is good, celebrate small wonders, and imagine a world of abundance. 


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  • Paul Kato Kabunga says:

    January 22, 2024 12:14 am

    This is a very positive article and offers some helpful and very practical actions