Military Life

4 Strategies to Embrace Your Negativity Bias

By Jenny Phillips-Levine

Two deployments, four moves, countless detachments and the snags that inevitably supplement this life of upheaval, made me question whether my marriage to the military was making me a negative person. Five years in, I now intercept every scrap of bad news with the thought, of course that would happen. Relate much?

However, before you or I start beating ourselves up for incessantly expecting the worst, let us shed some light on the practical, even vital, role that negative thinking plays in our lives.

While dwelling on the downside is hardly attractive to a society that idealizes optimism, our ancestors relied on this thought process to survive. Known as the “negativity bias,” a psychological phenomenon that suggests it takes at least five good experiences to overcome the memory of one bad experience, this adaptation is hardwired into our brains to avoid risk and harmful consequences. Being negative, therefore, is not necessarily being sullen or cynical; it’s practical. Wise, even.

To be clear, I am not suggesting our biological predisposition to focus on misfortune gives us license to embrace the “woe-is-me” mantra. Pulling the victim card is never a good look. Rather, I propose that utilizing the negativity bias as nature intended can lead to smart choices, and thus, happiness. If used constructively, negativity can help you prepare for and navigate through the intense obstacle course that is military life. Here are a few strategies to keep bitterness at bay while making negativity work for you:

1. See the bad situation for what it is, but learn from it.

According to Psychology Today contributor Ray Williams, “[Avoid] over-analyzing or ruminating on past negative events; rather focus on what can be done in the present in a proactive manner.” Creating a plan of action for handling tomorrow’s disappointments engenders resilience. Replaying the latest sob story is counterproductive.

2. Roll with the punches.

Life will take plenty of swings at you, but you can minimize the hurt. How to Take a Beating, by psychologist Dr. Nigel Barber, recommends that you keep moving despite the pain. Staying active and carrying on with your life will help you cope with adversity and better bounce back from hardships.

3. Know that you’ll be fine.

Deployment’s been extended another month? Funny, they said that last month. But you’ve got this. Bad news stings every time you hear it, but you have been building a tolerance. Take a moment to acknowledge that the situation is unfair or ridiculous or heartbreaking—often, all of the above—but remind yourself that you survived the last letdown, and the thousands that came before it. You’ll get through this too.

4. Be positive.

As needed. Yes, I may have unintentionally championed negativity as being the lifeblood of resilience, but as with most things in life, balance is key. Let us not forget to laugh at this hot mess of a life.


As military spouses, our negativity biases are engaged comprehensively more often than those of our civilian counterparts. We relocate 10 times more often, a complication that eddies into a multitude of stressful circumstances. The move itself is usually a nightmare, and you may not be thrilled with your new station. Careers or education are often put on hold. Visits to see the extended family you left behind drain your precious leave time and travel budget, making actual vacations nearly impossible.

If you have children, you worry about their adjustment. All of this is compounded when our significant others are away. Is it any wonder that we equate “worst-case scenario” with the inevitable? Relative to the civilian world, we simply experience more snags, more often. That, coupled with our inherent emphasis on unfortunate events, rewards and matures us with a grit and a mental stamina beyond our years.

Know that pessimism does not necessarily come from resentment for the sacrifices required of you, nor from anger that your spouse is away from home more often than not; rather, it is an adaptation. We are the Murphy’s Law-abiding Debbie Downers that we are today, because past experience has conditioned us to expect, accept and handle the demands of this life.

Sometimes, maintaining optimism can be as emotionally draining as the situation that necessitates it, and negative thinking can be a much-needed relief. As long as you keep it constructive, there is no shame in being realistic. So, the next time you cringe at that here we go again inner voice, know that you are not being a drag. Your survival mechanism is just highly developed. Negativity, therefore, is a good thing, if you use it to your benefit. Then again, I could be biased.

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