The science of positivity

How can we be more resilient?

Round, smooth black pebbles on a beach at sunset.

Image: Isaac Sloman / Unsplash

Image: Isaac Sloman / Unsplash

Our newsfeeds have been filled with tragic and worrying stories for a long time, but ‘bad news fatigue’ is something many of us have felt more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It can be hard to feel positive in a world that is constantly telling us things are bad.

But we know life is more than what we read on the news – it is filled with moments of great joy, connection and new experiences. We have the determination and resilience to conquer the big challenges in our lives and come out stronger on the other side.

At our ChangeMaker event on October 6 – The Science of Positivity – we asked our expert UQ alumni about how we can commit to the positive: what's the negativity bias and how can we overcome it? How can we build resilience when we face tough hurdles in life? And how can we cultivate gratitude for ourselves and our lives?

Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister

Professor of Psychology, UQ School of Psychology

A man with blonde hair and a grey beard smiling into the camera. He wears a black blazer with a blue shirt and a colourful tie.

Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister

Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister

Research has shown us that – as humans – we respond more strongly to negative experiences than positive experiences in every part of our lives.

We remember criticism more easily than we remember praise, or fear more than happiness: a dog bites us once, and we suddenly forget about the countless positive experiences we’ve had with dogs up until that moment. 

This is called the negativity bias, and it’s something we all have.

While there are no universal laws in psychology, the negativity bias is one phenomena where we’ve come close. In 2001, I published a literature review, ‘Bad is stronger than good’, which is now one of the most cited articles in the scientific literature.

Our paper shared our astonishing – and unexpected – finding: that there were no situations in which humans felt good experiences outweighed the bad. Bad parenting leaves a greater mark on children than good parenting. One negative interaction tarnishes our view of people. Trauma has no positive equivalent: nothing good can have such a lasting and significant effect on us.

The Power of Bad by Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Evolutionarily, the negativity bias makes sense: it helped our ancestors survive deadly threats when one mistake could kill you. To survive, life has to win every day: death has to win just once.

But today – where, generally, we are safe and have access to food, shelter and entertainment – it can be unhelpful in our everyday lives. It leads us to view the world in a disproportionately bad light when, in fact, things are pretty good.

It’s important to remember that negative emotions and experiences aren’t necessarily bad for us. Research has shown us that we learn faster from negative feedback than from positive. Bad is a powerful incentive for good change: it drives us to be better, whether in our jobs, our relationships or our families.

The way forward to a more positive life isn’t about disposing of the bad: it’s about recognising the negativity bias, taking advantage of the benefits it offers and breaking destructive thought patterns we’ve had wired into us through evolution.

If we recognise the good in the bad, things can change: we can become less terrified of the things that scare us, like public speaking or skydiving, if we find the positivity in them. Public speaking allows us to connect with and share our thoughts with a group of people; skydiving is exhilarating and a unique opportunity to the view the world from a different perspective.

We don’t necessarily need less bad in our lives: we just need to recognise the lessons it offers us.

It is important to caveat that it can be hard to focus on the positive in a world that’s obsessed with the bad, something that is particularly highlighted in the media we consume. An option is to go on a ‘low bad diet’, where you minimise your exposure to negativity – for example, not starting your day with the news.

By taking control of our in-built negativity bias, we can become more resilient in the face of negative experiences. We can appreciate the good that exists every day in our lives and view the world in a better light.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember: not everything is as bad as it seems.

A red book cover with the title 'The Power of Bad' in a jagged circle, the author's names as listed in the caption in another jagged circle, and the words 'how the negativity effect rules us and how we can rule it' in another jagged circle.

The Power of Bad by Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

The Power of Bad by Emeritus Professor Roy Baumeister and John Tierney

Brenden Hall OAM

Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science 17’, Australian Paralympic swimmer

A blonde man with a blue shirt bearing an Australian logo and Paralympics Australia logo smiles into the camera against a cream wall.

Brenden Hall OAM

Brenden Hall OAM

A defining quality of every elite athlete is their resilience. To be the best of the best, you have to be okay with losing, dusting yourself off and trying again – after all, you’re pitted against some of the most talented people in the world and only one of you can win gold.

Resilience has been part of my story long before I was an athlete. When I was six years old, I lost my right leg and most of my hearing to chicken pox.

I spent six months in hospital. Once I realised my leg wasn’t coming back, I found it very difficult to stay motivated. At a point where I was feeling really down, I was taken to see where the prosthetic legs are made. It made me realise there were options: I felt, for the first time in a while, there was a path forward.

I’d always loved swimming and I was aching to get back in the pool once I was out of hospital. I had to wait for my stiches to heal before I could swim, but Mum and Dad wrapped my leg up in plastic almost as soon as I got home. I’ll never forget that first moment floating in the water. It was where everything disappeared: I was the kid I’d been before.

Later that year, I watched the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. I saw people who looked exactly like me swimming for Australia, including the flagbearer Brendan Burkett. I knew then I wanted to swim for my country.

Eight years later, I made my Paralympic debut at Beijing as the youngest male on the Australian swimming team.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. I’ve had to push my body to its absolute physical limit for 15 years. I’ve been committed to perfection every time I get in the water. And I’ve had to come to terms with what happens when you don’t win gold.

Tokyo 2021 has been a difficult experience. As an athlete, you spend years training your hardest for these moments. Everything had been aligning perfectly: in the lead up to Tokyo, I’d had my fastest swim since Rio 2016. I was one of the Aussie favourites. I’d overcome the mental struggle of the Paralympics being postponed until 2021. And then in the water, I swam one of the worst races of my life.

On paper, it was going to be one of my best: until it wasn’t.

With all of the pressure you feel as an athlete – representing your country and the team who has worked so hard to get you there, the years of training and commitment – moments like that can make you feel worthless. Mentally, I crashed, and the rest of my races suffered. I felt like I’d let everyone around me down.

But I knew I needed to keep going. For me, resilience has been about remaining true to my goals in an incredibly high-pressure environment and remembering why I swim when I’m struggling. I’ve found resilience in myself, but also in the people around me: my family, friends and team.

On the side of every hurdle is an opportunity to make something great of it. 22 years ago, I lost my leg to chicken pox. On the other side of that were three Paralympic gold medals and a career I love. 

And on the other side of Tokyo: Paris 2024 and a family that I can’t wait to share my world with.  

Brenden Hall at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London. Image: Australian Paralympic Committee

A man with his arms backwards, mid-stroke, swimming in a pool. Yellow lane dividers are on his right, blue on the left. He wears a swimming cap with AUS on it, as well as goggles. The water splashes behind him as he takes a breath.

Professor Phillippa Diedrichs

Bachelor of Science (Honours) '04 & Doctor of Philosophy '11, Professor of Psychology at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research, Research Consultant for Unilever

A black-and-white photo of a blonde woman smiling into the camera. She is wearing a black long-sleeve shirt. There is a wooden door behind her.

Professor Phillippa Diedrichs

Professor Phillippa Diedrichs

Many of us find it hard to develop resilience in how we feel about our bodies, especially how we look. It's hard to feel good about ourselves when we live in a world constantly telling us that our bodies are unattractive or unworthy. Social media and advertising are full of beauty stereotypes, unhealthy diet and fitness messages, and digitally distorted images of celebrities.

We become aware of our bodies and society's expectations for how they should look early in life. Children as young as three have absorbed appearance stereotypes. They're aware that being in a large body, having a disability, or looking different from the "norm" is less accepted in society. From the age of five, children verbalise dissatisfaction with their bodies. Research by the Dove Self-Esteem Project found that by age 13, 80 per cent of girls have used retouching apps on their photos, and many of them feel they don't look good enough without photo editing.

By the age of 15, 60 per cent of us are unhappy with the way we look. Scientists have dubbed this trend normative discontent. In other words, it's more typical for people, particularly girls and non-binary individuals, to dislike their bodies than to accept them.

Body image concerns affect us as individuals but also as a society. They hold us back from fully participating in our lives and communities. Research shows that 8 out of 10 girls who are worried about how they look will opt out of life activities, like raising their hand in class, going to the doctor, giving an opinion, or trying out for a sports club or team. Academic research has also shown that preoccupation with how we look stops us from challenging systems and norms that oppress us, including gender inequality.

So how do we create a positive space for our bodies in a world that keeps telling us to judge them?

Businesses will be critical partners in building consumers' resilience to appearance stereotypes and expectations. We need to hold businesses accountable for how they represent bodies and market their products. Diverse representation in advertising and communications needs to be the norm, including age, body size, skin shade and abilities.

We also need to show women and girls in less objectifying ways. For example, we often reduce women’s value to their appearance, when we need to show them as active agents of change in society. If we grow up only seeing women whose success is dependent on how they look or other traditional feminine stereotypes, it limits the potential of who our girls think they can be. Whether you own your own business or are working within one, think about how you represent women in your work and the message it sends to girls. Also think about showcasing the extraordinary natural diversity of looks across all genders that we see in everyday life. Research and business case studies have proven that this is good for consumers' well-being and good for business.

As carers and role models – whether that is a parent, guardian, teacher, coach or other – we need to think about how we talk about our bodies in front of others. As children, we soak up the ideas our carers share. Criticising someone else's appearance or your own conveys that appearance is important and that you need to look a certain way if you want to be considered attractive and likeable. In fact, the characteristics we value and admire the most in our friends, partners, colleagues, and leaders often have nothing to do with their looks. Focusing on personal qualities rather than looks is one way we can subtly disrupt unhelpful appearance stereotypes and body pressures.

Finally, developing a kind and respectful relationship with our bodies and appearance is key to thriving mentally and physically. An excellent place to start is to practice gratitude for what your body allows you to do, rather than focusing on how it looks. Our bodies are incredibly complex, functional systems working in delicate harmony to keep us breathing, eating, and alive. Your body also gets you places, allowing you to do activities you love, express yourself, and show affection to the people you care about. Your body lets you be creative, inspired, emotional, and intelligent.

Our bodies deserve respect and acceptance not just for what they look like but also for what they allow us to do. By creating more body accepting environments - at home, at school, at work, and online - we're creating a more healthy, inclusive and thriving society.

Illustrations: Viktoriia / Adobe Stock

An illustration of a white person in a crop top and jeans with short brown hair.
An illustration of a woman of colour wearing an orange swimsuit and doing a peace sign.

Did you watch our most recent ChangeMakers event? Catch-up on the discussion below or on our event page.