Fixing the Ugly Problem with Our Minds

There’s something in the air that stinks. And it’s been messing with our minds.

Actually, it’s not in the air…as much as the airwaves, hurling itself at us at every turn, a constant source of negativity, gloom, cynicism.

And even though its official wrath is just about over, the lessons it teaches us about our brains and how we deal with life every day remain. We must learn from it.  

The source of it all? The endless barrage of political ads that has infiltrated our lives over the past year.  

On one hand, with so many hard-fought races it’s not surprising that the candidates have been so relentless. After all, they must prove that they’re the right choice.

The problem of course – and the thing that really stinks – is that these ads haven’t really focused on the candidate at all. They’ve focused on the other guy. And they’ve all been negative.

No, strike that. They haven’t just been negative. They’ve been nasty. Ugly.

Even the media seems surprised by how bad it’s gotten…

The never-ending, toxic onslaught happens every election cycle, yes?

You know what else happens?

We gripe. We complain. We moan about it. We say: please stop attacking each other! Please end the negativity!  We can’t stand it!

Yet the ugly truth – the one we hate even more than the ads themselves – is that they work.

We know they work because the polls show it.

Keep a negative campaign going long enough and chances are the other guy will fall. Keep a positive one about your campaign going? Chances are people won’t pay quite so much attention.

The ugly problem with our minds is that this stuff works on us, even if we don’t know it.


It turns out that toxic stuff – the stuff we hate? It’s “stickier” in our brains.

It lands in our brains and stays there because it interests us more.

It plays on our fears and so we sit up and pay attention.

It’s somewhat juicy, so we remember it.

This ugly problem with our minds goes far beyond any political ad, and will last long after the election is over.

Think about it.

Do you remember the last compliment you received? Or did you blow it off? How about the last insult or funny look that came your way? Did it stick around longer?

Do you note when the couple next to you has a quiet conversation? What about when they begin quietly fighting? What’s more interesting?

Do you watch your favorite reality TV show because you love it when everyone gets along? Or do you pay extra attention when they gossip, scheme and duke it out? (Be honest!)

It makes sense. Negative stuff and gossipy tidbits can be pretty juicy. They can also provide a nice dose of validation.

They make us feel better about ourselves for the moment because they don’t focus on us. They provide a nice little second of  relief.

At least, we think to ourselves, we’re better than these people!

All of this is understandable. It’s human nature.


Holding onto this stuff, spreading it, and allowing it to quietly influence our lives, relationships and decisions can turn one innocent moment of negativity into a cynical, judgmental life.

We do it in all kinds of ways:

  • We focus on the coworker who got under our skin – and tell others about it – instead of  celebrating the three friends who had us laughing over lunch
  • We focus on the slow person in front of us in line – and mutter quietly – instead of the cashier who took care of the situation with ease and grace
  • We focus on the one mistake in the report we just submitted – and beat ourselves up –  instead of the fact that it was expertly written and came in under deadline

The result?

We are negative…so we feel negative. We speak cynically. We judge others and ourselves.

We walk around with less of a spring in our step.

Ultimately, we are less happy.

And, frankly, we’re just not as much fun to be around.

But we can stop the cycle.

Here’s how:

  1. Know the ugly truth about our minds. Know that you’re in it with the rest of us.
  2. Take one day and pay attention to how often a negative word slips into your mind, thoughts or discussions. I bet it’s more than you thought.
  3. Make a decision to be happier, to focus on the positive stuff in others and yourself. When you notice yourself whining about something that isn’t a big deal, stop it, and switch to something good that happened today. If nothing good happened, do something good for someone you care about.

Sound way too flowery for you? Way too annoyingly sugary?

Too bad. Happiness comes when you decide – yes decide – to feel happy. Simple as that.

Sure, sometimes really terrible things happen, things we need to work through. And of course, we need to process these things differently.

But for everything else, the decision is up to us.

So decide. Cast your vote about your own life.

Oh, and when you find those negative political ads – or any of those nasty, judgmental shows – creeping into your life, do what I’ve started doing.

Shut them off.

After all, it’s up to you just how much you’ll let the air around you stink.


Accept the ugly truth and notice how you let it play out. Make a small change.

See how much better you feel. I dare you.

Now go do good…and do it well.




3 responses to “Fixing the Ugly Problem with Our Minds”

  1. Patricia Costa Avatar
    Patricia Costa

    Wow! Wow! Wow! Deirdre, terrific post. I am so tired of people pointing a finger instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. What a nice world it would be if more people would say,”let me take a look at my own actions and how I can help this world a better place.” Let it begin with ME!

  2. Emily Davis Avatar

    This is great, Deirdre! Also, it reminds me quite a bit about The Happiness Advantage and shifting a focus from the negative to the positive for yourself. In particular the exercise that sticks out to me is the one where you send an unsolicited email or letter acknowledging gratitude for someone in your life. The key is to write it down.

    We love to pick each other apart… whatever happened to the old saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?”

  3. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
    Deirdre Maloney

    Thanks for the reply, Emily…and well said! I’m not sure where the saying went, but we could all use a refresher on it…the hardest part of course is putting it into practice! 🙂