Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail if we know what we’re up against.
When I posted the Wall Street Journal essay, Say No to Negativity, on my Facebook page the end of December, I had no idea how prophetic it would, how intentional I would need to be to stay positive while I shelter in place alone during this Covid-19 pandemic:
The new year is supposed to bring hope, but too often it feels grim. We resolve to be virtuous—to lose weight, to exercise, to unplug from social media—but we recall past failures and fear another losing struggle. We toast to a better, happier world in 2020, but we know there will be endless bad news and vitriol, especially this election year.
We could use a fresh approach. For 2020, here’s a resolution that could actually work: Go on a low-bad diet.
Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: the negativity effect. Also known as the negativity bias, it’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.
The negativity effect sounds depressing—and it often is—but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. By recognizing it and overriding our innate responses, we can break destructive patterns, make smarter decisions, see the world more realistically and also exploit the benefits of this bias. Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail if we know what we’re up against.
First, a little back story. Those of you who know me personally—either face to face or via my book, blog and social media—know that I almost always use the hashtag #reclaimingjoy. That is the name of my memoir of grief. That is what I did after my husband’s death in 2009. That is what I am trying to do now, as I shelter in place alone in a highrise apartment in Dallas.
Increasingly last week, as I tried to visually record moments of joy, my old hashtag felt wrong. I tried #claimjoy. Better, but not completely accurate. At bedtime last night I knew, and I scribbled it down on a Post-It Note. #SEEKJOY.
The lines of a song I sang years ago (youth choir, Beech Street Baptist Church, Texarkana, AR in the late 50s?) flitted through my mind. If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me, you shall surely find Me. I quickly found a YouTube link this morning—a vocal competition with full orchestra. Mendelssohn with words from the prophet Elijah.
Seek and you shall find. I find that when I am more intentional about seeking joy—when I look for joy—I am more likely to find it. Home alone on Nantucket each summer I look for joy—the roses and hydrangeas, beaches, ocean, church steeple—in order to photograph and share my joy with family and friends back home.
Shortly after I arrived in Dallas last week, I took a shortcut from my condo construction project to my temporary apartment, driving along Turtle Creek and the back streets of beautiful old Highland Park. Fruit trees and redbud were in full bloom, along with azaleas, pansies and all the spring bulbs. Involuntarily, I felt a surge of joy break through my negative thoughts of the coronavirus, with all its accompanying uncertainty and fear. I knew then I needed to seek joy, to be sure that every day includes activities and experiences that delight my senses. I have been deluging friends by social media, text, emails and phone calls with photos—from grocery shopping to cooking to arranging flowers. Today it’s YouTube. And Scripture.
As I lay in bed waiting for sleep last night, thinking about seeking, my mind turned to Scripture—not Philippians this time, but the parables Jesus told and the sermons he preached. So this morning, instead of spending coffee time with the news headlines, I spent it with my old NIV Bible, from which I taught high school students for 16 years. If you would like to reflect with me, starting in the Gospel of Matthew:
- Matthew 6:25–34. “Do not worry.”
- Matthew 7:7, 8. “…seek and you will find…”
- Matthew 13:44, 45. Joy comes from seeking and finding.
- Luke 15:3–9. More parables about seeking and finding.
- John 16:22. A promise: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
Finally, from James, the brother of Jesus, whose blunt realism so often bursts my bubble:
- James 1:2–6. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance….If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…
- James 3:17. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
- James 4:3. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
I am not being naïve as I write this. I know all too well that bad things happen to good people.
Frog Sullivan, founding director of Young Life in Corpus Christi, spoke to my church’s high school students about “The Myth of Christianity.” He said, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and live happily ever after.’ He said, ‘Lo I am with you always.’” I have found God faithful in the past. I trust Him now. And I know that while my joy in flowers and cooking lasts only a short while, the joy I find in and through Him is eternal.
March 22, 2020
Author’s note: I wrote my blog before the announcement was made that Dallas County will be under “shelter in place” law starting at 11:59 p.m. Monday. Only essential goods and services will be available, and all social gatherings of any size are forbidden. More than ever I need to seek joy on a daily basis.
In the past I have spent hours on every blog, wanting it to be attractive on the page, with photos, subheads, a consistent style, etc. As a result I have posted far more on social media than on my website. Now I feel an urgency to write, and I want to get my words up and out there now rather than later. My page won’t look as professional, but I hope my words are encouraging.
 John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, Wall Street Journal, 27 Dec 2019