Lawyers are trained to spot issues and think critically. We advise our clients on what can go wrong. Our legal training intensifies the negativity bias. Researcher Amrisha Vaish defines negativity bias as our proclivity to “attend to, learn from and use negative information far more than positive information.” Ample research indicates that humans are hardwired to process, use and pay attention to negative information. In my own life, I often catch myself reliving a jury trial I lost or a hearing where I felt my client was treated unfairly more so than the cases I’ve won.
While the negativity bias may be useful in helping lawyers spot potential pitfalls in their clients’ cases, it can also impact lawyer well-being. Negativity bias appears to increase the risk for both anxiety and depression. Perhaps this is one of the reasons lawyers suffer from depression, stress, anxiety and other mental health issues at a higher rate than the general public.
The good news is that there are many practices for combating the negativity bias and increasing happiness and resilience.
Research by Shawn Achor, author of several books on happiness, demonstrates that you can increase your level of happiness by spending two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. When you repeatedly do this practice, you’re training the brain to locate the positive instead of always focusing on the negative, training yourself to be more optimistic.
I keep my gratitude list in a notebook, which also serves as a worry journal, on my nightstand. This is helpful when I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep because I’m running through my to-do list. There are also many apps to help you establish a gratitude practice, including Insight Timer and Headspace.
Achor’s research also shows that spending just two minutes per day practicing meditation can boost your sense of happiness and optimism. It’s possible to literally rewire your brain to experience less anxiety and boost happiness through meditation.
When establishing a meditation practice, keep it simple. The only things you need are your mind and body. Simply set a timer for two minutes, sit in a comfortable position in a chair, and pay attention to the sensation of the breath moving in and out of the body.
Reframe your thoughts
When I was going through treatment for an anxiety disorder, I would regularly share my latest anxiety-provoking event. I had a habit of catastrophizing and assuming the worst-case scenario. My therapist would gently ask, “What if the opposite were true?”
In time, I was able to see that I never thought of the best-case scenario—a future filled with success and happiness.
Humans have the ability to observe their own thoughts, a process known as metacognition. That means you can learn to notice when your mind is solely focusing on the negative.
When you observe the mind in its familiar pattern, gently practice shifting it. You can have a mantra such as “In this moment, I am safe” and repeat it whenever your mind is spiraling out of control.
The 'G.I. Joe fallacy'
Coined by Yale University psychology professors Laurie R. Santos and Tamar Gendler, the “G.I. Joe fallacy” refers to a common belief that when you know about a cognitive bias, that knowledge should be enough to overcome it. In the popular 1980s G.I. Joe cartoon, each episode closed with a public service announcement ending with: “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” But having the knowledge of a desired action is not enough to make it happen or to get the desired benefit.
I’ll often work with lawyers who know all the activities they should engage in to increase their well-being and happiness: get more exercise, eat more vegetables, practice meditation, get more sleep. However, they don’t actually prioritize and do the things they know are good for them.
My advice is this: Start by asking yourself why increasing happiness and boosting your well-being is important. Next, commit to doing just one of the practices daily for at least 21 days. Doing something for only two minutes a day might feel too easy, but keep it simple. Remember, it’s not the duration but the compounding effects of a daily practice that matters. Avoid the G.I. Joe fallacy, and as the saying goes, just do it.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms on stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She co-wrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.
This story was originally published in the October-November 2020 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Nixing Negative Bias: 3 strategies to reframe your mindset”