Updated on 03.21.11

How Does Negativity Help You?

Trent Hamm

“I don’t really care what you have to say because you don’t have the same political beliefs as I do.”

“This idea just doesn’t match my life at all, so it’s worthless.”

Several years ago, my immediate circle of friends were full of people who would go out for drinks after work and spend an hour or two being as snarky as possible. We would spend our time making fun of others and often criticizing them for stupid reasons.

I would often see that negative sentiment sneaking into other aspects of my life. I would feel more negative about the things I used to feel very positive about. Rather than looking at the big good things in my life, I would focus instead on the little negatives.

Even worse, I would often use these little negatives as an excuse to be apathetic. I could ignore good advice because the person giving it didn’t appear to be affluent. I’d disregard a report with a lot of good ideas in it because of a spelling error.

Eventually, I reached a point where I realized that I was just drifting in life, finding easy reasons not to do anything. It was much easier to sit back and be snarky than to actually do anything, so I just fell into that trap.

It was at that point that many aspects of my life began to turn around. I basically decided to stop being negative about anything in my life with the exception of my own behavior. Sure, there might be a spelling error, but this report has a lot of good ideas in it, so what can I absorb? Yeah, the person across the hall might dress in worn-out clothes, but so what? He makes a lot of sense.

In the years following that shift, I took charge of my own choices. I started The Simple Dollar. I made a lot of changes to my personal, financial, and professional life. I paid off every bit of the debt I owed.

No more blame. No more negativity. No more excuses. Instead, I look at each situation and ask myself what real value I can get from this. If I can’t see anything, I move on without wasting a drop of energy on it – no negative thoughts, comments, or anything else.

“You have to be braindead to like that.”

“I didn’t bother to read the rest of the article because the first sentence included a misplaced apostrophe.”

If you default to a negative perspective on things, you’re bringing on several immediate costs that don’t have to be present.

First, negativity leads a person to never really challenge themselves. If something is challenging or different, it’s often hit with negativity and that negative response is used as a reason to not actually challenge yourself or grow. Negativity causes you to get stuck in a rut.

Second, negativity often undermines your own argument. It’s important to remember that people with a positive perspective on life have learned the powerful lesson to simply walk away from strong negativity. If you bring negativity to the table, many people are going to simply ignore what you’re saying and what you’re doing.

Also, negativity is often viewed as a sign of problems to come. Over and over again, my experience in the workplace has shown me that the person with the most negative attitude in the workplace is the person that is keeping projects from moving forward and is reducing the morale of everyone in the workplace. This isn’t a factor that’s unknown to supervisors and people who hire. They know that

“The author of this article once made a mistake in some other aspect of his life. Don’t read it.”

“If you listen to Buffett’s advice, you must be in favor of the destruction of the American dollar.”

Beyond that, negativity breeds negativity. Once you’ve reached a point where you find it okay to stew in negativity about one thing, it’s very easy to just add another thing to the pile. Once you’ve reached a point where you’re finding it healthy to openly share your negative feelings, it becomes easy to make many of your shared thoughts negative.

The more you do this, the more you drive away positive people in your life. I certainly don’t enjoy spending time involved with people who constantly look for the worst in others. I try as best I can to avoid them, not interact with them, and not give them my business.

On the flip side, you also tend to attract other folks who stew in negativity. In this situation, you’re embedding yourself in a constant stream of often-unfounded criticism and a focus on elements that are outside of a person’s core competencies (like criticizing a person’s ideas because of who the person is or discrediting a written argument because of a mis-spelled word or ignoring a speaker because of the color of trousers they chose). In other words, you’re focusing on things that don’t matter and applying negative perspectives to those that do.

“That professional woman is just dressed horribly. I won’t take my business there.”

“Who are you to even suggest that I might not be doing the best possible thing? What do you know, idiot?”

Every ounce of energy or thought you waste on being needlessly negative towards someone or something is an ounce of energy or thought not spent making your life better. The time and energy you spend whispering a caustic comment to someone else, writing a negative comment on a website, getting in a rage about an inconsequential detail, or thinking about how much you dislike someone or something is time and energy not spent putting your life in a better place.

If you think something isn’t useful for you, walk away from it and minimize the time and energy you spend on it. You’ll find yourself with a lot more time and energy available during your day to do positive things and absorb ideas that can help you in a positive way.

The next time you don’t like some pop culture phenomenon or have a strong sense of dislike for someone or find a minor error in someone’s work (when you’re not hired to proof it) or find yourself getting angry about something you can’t directly impact, take a deep breath and walk away. Look instead for the things that can actually help you or the ways in which you can actually help that situation.

The vast majority of the time, you’ll find yourself getting a lot more out of life – financially, professionally, emotionally, personally, and otherwise.

Good luck.

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  1. Sherry says:

    I feel very positive about what you’ve written today.

  2. JackieBooks says:

    This is a great post-I think sometimes many people who comment on your posts are full of negativity. Thank you for reminding us to stay positive and give people the benefit of the doubt!

  3. Carole says:

    I’m around retired people more; too many of them sit around talking too much when there are things to do that need to be done. Just maintaining a home and eating properly take time enough that one shouldn’t have time every day to do nothing but talk and criticize.

  4. Sonja says:

    I love this post! You are spot on, Trent. Growing up in a home with a negative parent will mess up a kid like nothing else. If nothing (and no one) is good enough, where are you supposed to find role models and self-worth?

  5. Tanya says:

    This is such a good reminder; be kind and gentle with people. It’s so essential to do and so easy to forget.

  6. Katie says:

    I think an important addition to this – especially for women, who are socialized in our society to internalize responsibility for everything – is not to be unduly negative towards yourself either. It’s important to give yourself the same benefit of the doubt you give other people (and that doesn’t, for either yourself or other people, equate to accepting excuses or lack of responsibility).

  7. VickiB says:

    Oh Carole and Sonja – how spot-on your posts are for me ! I grew up in a negative household, with two extremely intelligent parents. They are now retired and even more negative due to failing health ! They love me so much, but at core, I am NOT a negative person, and find I have to work very hard EVERY DAY not to fall into their mindset. I am venturing out of a cubicle in a few weeks to start a new business, and am purposely avoiding as much negativity as I can ! In all honesty, I am the “Black sheep” of my family due to having friends and a happy outlook ! I’m glad Trent posted this reminder for me, because this is something I must continue to remember !

  8. Stephan F- says:

    Trent you got that pegged good.
    We’ve moved because the people around us were too negative, we are still working on finding some positive people to be around but it is just another challenge, it’s temporary and we’ll get thru it.

  9. Jay says:

    Well said!! Another timely post. Take the lemons and make lemonade!

  10. valleycat1 says:

    Well said, as far as immaterial mistakes or as far as biases on my part. However, if someone frequently makes errors of fact, I start questioning – or researching on my own – most anything else they say.

  11. Kai says:

    It’s interesting that it’s negative to point out a mistake, but that you also suggest it is negative to not listen when someone points out a mistake.

    No, negativity doesn’t help.

    But corrections are not always negativity.
    And passive-aggressiveness is about as bad.

  12. Gretchen says:

    I’d so much rather be around people who don’t mind pointing out mistakes so I can *fix* them then “yes men.”

  13. EJ says:

    Great post Trent. Amazing how a positive post like this attracts less comments than some of your other topics.

  14. Interested Reader says:

    So which is more negative? Pointing out a factual error to someone or that person ignoring that a factual error has been made?

    Isn’t that part of being a “good partner” -paying attention to what someone is saying, even if they are pointing out errors that might undermine your message?

  15. Kathryn C says:

    It’s easier to be negative than positive because being negative usually means you’re not being introspective about some things you’re unhappy about, and then you can be lazy and not try to change anything. Once you start being introspective and positive, doors start to open, and you have to work to change things, if you want. Some people don’t want that choice because it’s hard work.

    I think people subconsciously realize that it’s easier to be negative than positive because it’s less work. And, most people are lazy, so it’s easier to be negative and point fingers. As I’m typing this I’m realizing I’m pointing fingers!!

  16. Kathleen says:

    @ Gretchen (#12) — Well, if you’d prefer to be around people who point out mistakes, your “then” should have been “than.”

    Hope this helps.

  17. Evita says:

    I understand your point Trent but honestly, negativity is not ALL bad. Actually, I learn a lot from the contrarian commenters on your blog……

  18. Tracy says:

    @Kathryn C

    Hahah, thank you, your comment made my day. I was very amused by how many people responded with at complaint about *other* negative people without realizing the irony of their comments.

    I agree with 95% of this post.

    Now, I was a little lost on the intro, because Trent’s original description – going out and being as snarky as possible – is sort of my ideal evening with friends NOW. Except we don’t make fun of other people, we make fun of each other. Sarcasm and loving mockery is our favorite form of entertainment and I don’t see it as particularly negative – when it’s done in the right spirit and with people who share that sense of humor. So yeah, his evenings sounded very much more mean-spirited than how I think of a snarky evening spent with friends.

    But what I really don’t agree with is the idea that noticing and commenting on errors is negative behavior. Nitpicky, sure. Often really darn annoying? Definitely. Negative? Not in the slightest.

    Passive aggressiveness, however, is totally a negative behavior!

  19. kitterlee says:

    Trent, thank you so much for this post. I really respect you for identifying negativity as an issue and making the choice to change it… and following up with action.
    Your “voice” really reflects this decision and it’s the reason your blog has become one of my favorites. I appreciate that you approach issues and questions without judgment and with a positive but realistic spin.
    Thank you for doing what you do!

  20. Gretchen says:

    As I am comparing 2 things, than.


  21. Julie says:

    As relates to the comment about the negative person at work preventing a project from progressing, I have seen bad projects get pushed foward by overly optomistic “positive” managers who refuse to listen to constructive criticism of an idea…because in their mind this equates to “negativity.” W

    hile I do agree with the overall premise of this post, I know of a few people who are overly positive (optomistic) to their own detriment and to the detriment of others.

  22. tentaculistic says:

    Wow, this one hit me between the eyes. I was told by someone close to me recently that I tend to see the negative in things, and always have – not that I’m wrong in what I perceive, but that’s what I orient my attention toward. That was several months ago, and it keeps running through my head, and I wonder how many things in my life are affected by this tendency, including my marriage.

    So here’s my question – how do you go about making that kind of seachange shift away from reflex negativity? From people who have walked that walk, how did you do it? Are there books that helped you, or tricks?

  23. kristine says:

    The only place I see for constructive negativity is in trouble-shooting systemic problems-could be in a car’s engine, could be in a printing press trafficking department, could be any procedural or mechanical system. You have to focus on what does not work. Then you look for similar situations that do work, analyze how, then try to parallel the procedure and effects.

    Now that’s a positive spin on negativity!

    I always thought the word snarky should be replaced with snide- to me they are the same- and then it would not be cool to be so :)

    It is obvious you read the comments, because many posts, like this one, are a clear reaction to recent comment sections.

  24. Rockledge says:

    To #22 tentaculistic: It is somewhat corny, but a book that helped me tremendously was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I had a very negative father and I wanted to learn how to interact with people in a better way. Excessive negativity is tiring, self-defeating, and unpleasant. I read Carnegie’s book over and over again until I could (and can) be nice to people day in and day out.

    Most of us are idiots at one time or another and can learn something from even the most seemingly unlikely source. I’m still my sarcastic little self, but I mainly use it to make fun of my own shortcomings and misadventures or to see the absurdity of situations in general.

    Being less negative has made my life much happier and I highly recommend the book. Good luck.

  25. Availle says:

    I love this post!

    Constructive criticism (also towards yourself) is one thing – it should definitely be encouraged!

    The other thing is constantly bitching about things you either cannot change (e.g., foreign policy of your country?) or are not willing to change (e.g, habits, lifestyle). Just leave it and move on…

    Of course, it’s ok to have a bad day every now and then. But a bad life?

  26. deRuiter says:

    “I’d disregard a report with a lot of good ideas in it because of a spelling error.” Wow Trent, “Physician heal thyself.”! What an interesting comment from a writer who refuses to use spell check, edit content, check facts or crack a grammar book!

  27. Victoria says:

    @Katie (#6)
    Just wanted to say thanks for pointing out the necessity of “giving yourself the benefit of the doubt.” It’s something I needed to be reminded of today!

    Also, there’s certainly a difference between negativity and constructive criticism (hence the word “constructive”) — but one can make good criticism without needing to be Eeyore.

  28. Johanna says:

    Is it negativity to criticize someone for being negative? I think that maybe it is. If you’re disregarding valid ideas just because those ideas are presented in a negative way rather than a positive way, isn’t that just as unfounded as disregarding them because of a spelling mistake or because of how the person is dressed?

    Trent says “No more blame…no more excuses,” but I see a lot of blame in this post – placed squarely on the “negative people.” It’s the negative person’s fault that the project isn’t moving forward. It’s the negative person’s fault that everyone else in the office is miserable. It’s the negative person’s fault that his or her own life is miserable. Etc., etc.

    If we’re going to take responsibility for our own choices and our own lives, how about we extend that to realize that it’s not anyone else’s job to make sure we’re in a good mood, and short of outright verbal abuse (which pointing out a spelling mistake is not), it’s not anyone else’s fault that we’re in a bad mood?

  29. jessie says:

    @deRuiter – the italized parts are supposed to be examples of what a negative person might say, not what Trent is himself saying.

    There’s plenty of other comments I’d like to respond to, but that would take far too much time, so I’ll just go with – Trent, I agree!

    @tentaculistic, as someone who also spent a childhood being negative, here’s a trick I used: Use “good manners” as a cruch until it comes naturally. I found that whenever I found myself wanting to drift towards being negative with family or friends, I would ask “would I speak this way or frame this issue in this way if I was speaking to a new employer or client or elderly relative or child?”. That kept me from falling into patterns of defaulting to snide comments meant to hurt, or disparaging comments that I justified as being “the truth as I saw it”.

    Another approach I would take whenever I didn’t like something would be to start prefacing all my complaints with “This is my problem, but there is a solution out there that I am smart enough to find and implement”. Negativity likes to place blame elsewhere; placing the responsibility for finding the solution on yourself keeps you focused on what you can do, and not what others have done.

    @johanna – I don’t think negativity and positivity are necessarily synonymous with moods. I think moods are reflective of many things including our general mindset; that is, I think it’s possible to be in a bad mood and still be a positive person, because it’s not like bad things don’t happen to optimistic people. I think the difference is proactivity: I don’t place blame on the negative person in the office for being a downer. I just distance myself from them as much as possible because I have better things to do than listen to complaints that don’t welcome solutions or criticisms not meant to improve the work

  30. Sometimes (maybe most times) I think that “walking away” from the negative might be more damaging in the long-term. Sure, maybe you feel good for a while by ignoring whatever it is that you’re walking away from, but does it really solve anything?

    For example, I’ve been active in working to end the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. It’s incredibly frustrating at times, and the controversies are many. There are a lot of negative aspects of focusing my time and attention on this issue and I often find myself angry and disgusted, but I’d never dream of turning my back on it and walking away.

    I’m an Environmental Science major and am constantly learning about environmental issues that are scary, depressing, upsetting and the controversy surrounding these issues (Climate Change, for example) are filled with negativity. I couldn’t turn my back on these issues because it’s easier to ignore them than to work to find solutions, even if it would mean that my life would be a little “better.”

    What I’m getting at is that there are just some things that are too important to just walk away from. Sometimes people need to buck up and deal with the challenges. That doesn’t mean we ought to spread the negativity through negative comments and attitudes. Then again, that’s how some people vent and allows them to blow off steam instead of keeping it all bottled inside…

  31. CW says:

    Excellent article. Thank you!

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