If there is one group dynamic we need to break free from to improve the quality of our social life, it is our default inclination to bond with others over the negatives.
Before I lay out my reasoning, I must first define what I mean by “negatives”. Negatives, in the scope of this post, encompasses emotions, minor events, and actions that illicit a stress response. For lack of better phrasing, it is the little things in our life that make us “feel bad”.
So what is wrong with bonding over the negatives? I concede that there are benefits of finding commonalities in our experiences with each other, especially when it comes to coping with stress. It helps to know that you’re not alone in your struggles. However, I will make an argument that we, as a society, have become too reliant upon the negatives to bring us closer together. Too often do we share negative experiences to improve social cohesiveness.Too often do we resort to negatives when we try to make a connection with another human being.
“Ugh, the grading system is broken.” “Ugh, the reading last night was so pointless.” “Ugh, I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” “Ugh, I have so much work to do.”
In short, negatives are becoming the backbone of our inter-individual relationships. This, in turn, is producing undesirable consequences for the quality of our social life. How so? Allow me to count the ways:
We drag each other down in our wake of negativity. As negatives pervade into our everyday language, we begin to adopt a group norm that is difficult to break. For example, I was in a study group not too long ago in which most of the time was spent talking about negatives. In casual conversation, people bashed on the reading assignments and the graduate program as a whole. I could see that there were a few people in the room who actually enjoyed the readings but conformed to the group norm in order to be more accepted by their peers. Those who did express their love for learning (myself included) were seen as “weird”, “unusual”, and “over-achieving” and immediately rejected. The whole experience left me in despair over the way we relate to each other. I think it’s time for a new group norm, perhaps one that doesn’t rely on negativity as the glue that binds us together.
We become complacent with undesirable situations. A culture of negativity ultimately evolves into one of jadedness and cynicism, leading to inaction. If we begin to accept the negatives as part of the social norm, we will needlessly accept undesirable situations. Better to be idealistic and fail than cynical and never try. Robert Reich writes about this in his post about cynicism and the government shutdown.
We forget how to be happy for one another. When it becomes easier to bond with others through the affirmation of negatives, we have will have successfully trapped ourselves in a downward spiral, a self-fulfilling cycle of loathing for the world around us. We rob the chance for happiness not only from ourselves, but the others who have to listen to our constant spew of negativity.
So what can we do to combat this growing trend and improve the quality of our social life? For one, we could break group norms by directing more conversations away from negative commonalities to more positive ones. We could also rise to action and change the negatives in our lives, instead of hanging around the sidelines, lamenting about how things could be different. Finally, we could learn how to be genuinely happy for other people. While crude, I think each step (among others) will do its part in creating a social environment that people can be proud of, a social environment in which people can feed upon the positive energy of others and grow to their fullest potential.
I live by these words.