Taming the Brain’s Negativity Bias with Gratitude

Schools — places chartered to support young people to reach their full human potential — can instead be places where adults get stuck in negativity bias — perfectionism, hurt, fear, cynicism. It’s our body’s default response to stay safe. Our brains are wired to notice danger, threats, and problems. Because of this, we sometimes simply do not see the strengths, beauty, and potential in one another.

Let’s start by talking about strengths

One educator we began working with several years ago was struggling to see the good in her students. In the beginning, she believed Sound Discipline approaches were nonsense. Fast forward two years and this same teacher is opening conversations about students who are struggling like this – “Ok, let’s start by talking about strengths.”

Sound Discipline staff hold space for adults who support young people — and right now a lot of the adults we are working with are wounded and exhausted. Still facing the pandemic, we are witnessing the downstream effects of lockdown and social isolation. Tasked with huge demands to do more, as educators, parents, and caregivers, we are overwhelmed and running on empty. We’re accustomed to being able to support and guide others and now it is too much. We are noticing that we’re dysregulated — resorting to blaming, shaming, and endless fretting because of all that’s wrong. It really isn’t our fault – that’s how our brains are designed!

My personal journey

During COVID, I studied everything about trauma that I could get my hands on — the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and Gabor Mate in particular. Learning more about trauma gave me a new language. I learned that my body’s and brain’s responses were not my fault. They were my innate protection systems performing as designed. I started to expand my meditation sessions to a sort of all-day sensing of what was going on in my body. I learned that myself and others have outsized fight, flight, or freeze responses that don’t match the current moment. When these responses come up, our brains send chemicals to signal the nervous system into alert.

Certainly not the only thing, but a key ingredient in my healing turns out to be gratitude. I’m not talking about when people admonish me to just “be grateful,” or “count your blessings,” or “think positive.” So not helpful.

I began a practice of focusing my mind on an experience that brought up feelings of gratitude and joy. Not just ok memories, but truly wonderful memories. As I practiced the technique, I noticed that it took effort to think of things that brought me joy. One time, I revisited an incredible day on my honeymoon in 1990. Another time, I thought about sitting in the bleachers in Citi Field watching the NY Mets beat the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th on a hot summer day. Thinking of truly joyful memories was like going to the gym — I kind of had to make myself do it. But it made a huge difference. I noticed my triggers starting to fade. My basic state of mind got calmer. My full range of emotion is present — including grief and sadness and the rest — but I stopped getting stuck in the hard places.

Ideas for Practicing Gratitude and Finding the Joy

So, how can we balance being present during hard things with a sense of authentic gratitude? How can we cultivate an awareness of strengths and avoid negativity bias? Is there a way to do this without turning it into one more thing on the to-do list to feel guilty or bad about? Here are some ideas that might spark you:

  • Stuck in traffic? Daydream, scanning your memory for something that is up there on the joy scale.
  • Ask someone to sit down with you and listen to you share a wonderful memory. Tell the story. Include all the details.
  • Listen to someone else’s wonderful memory.
  • Start your next meeting with an opening connection activity called “What’s good?” Or “What’s awesome?”
  • Think of something you are proud of and notice the specific role you played.
  • Share with a friend one thing you would like to be seen for and ask them to say out loud, “I see you for _________.” Ask them what they want to be seen for and return the compliment.
  • Kick off dinner table with appreciations for one another.
  • See a crow, a beautiful collage of fallen leaves, a baby’s face? Simply say under your breath – “thank you.”

What are your practices for taming your negativity bias and connecting with joy?


Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director of Sound Discipline



Sound Discipline is working for a world where children know they belong and can learn and thrive.

We partner with educators, organizations, and families to transform schools into equitable learning communities.

We bring together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and Positive Discipline practices to facilitate change in the ways adults see and respond to students.

Courageous Educators:
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.

Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.

Connected Families:
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.