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Beating Bad to Bits: The Rule of Four and the Negative Golden Rule

"That which is to you hateful do not to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary on it; go, learn!" Hillel, renowned Jewish scholar and sage

Bad is badder than we think.  That’s one understanding that will help us defeat it.  How? It motivates us.  It makes us get more serious about how to defeat it – how to protect ourselves (from making poor decisions under its influence, from long-term suffering); it prods us to understand what causes it, and it helps us refrain from being bad ourselves.

Much of what I’m sharing comes from Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s book, The Power of Bad and How to Overcome It. “Bad” is the negativity bias or the negativity effect.  It means the tendency in all humans to be greatly more affected by the negative – negative (bad) events, negative (bad) people, negative (bad) behavior, negative (bad) feelings.

Countries under the influence of the negativity bias ignorantly stumble into wars. Friends and family feud. Economies flounder. Companies go bankrupt. Americans get polarized. People get hurt.

In my previous blog, John’s story of a negative encounter with a patient gives an example of how badly bad can affect us.  And I mentioned one way to break bad is to take away the sting.  See the silver lining (get a little help from your inner “Pollyanna”) in a bad situation for example.  Socrates reportedly had a nasty-tempered wife.  His friends urged him to get away from her.  Socrates saw it differently.  He felt his bad wife made him into a good philosopher. (Because I know that we are continually going to face bad stuff, most every night I repeat for each of my children, myself, my grandchildren, and my husband - some version of "may whatever suffering we experience make us kinder/more compassionate, wiser, and stronger." It keeps me centered - less fearful of the bad and helps me sleep better too.)

Another way to break bad is to drown it (be prepared for a lot of metaphor mixing). Play rose, thorn, bud (this practice is usually done in the spirit of a game). Except to beat bad, do the game with a twist. What is rose, thorn, bud? It is a way of reflecting on (sharing about) your day or your week or a conversation – whatever.

The rose part of this “game” is recalling something that you liked, something that lifted you up, gave you hope, inspired you sort of thing - like a sunny day, a conversation with a stranger, a compliment from your spouse. The thorn is something that didn’t go your way – a goal you didn’t achieve, a flat tire, a criticism. Bud is something that you are looking forward to – a trip, a movie, a meal, meeting up with a friend.

To beat bad, to drown it, play the “game” (in your head or with friends and family) with FOUR roses to every one thorn.  Beating bad is not about ignoring it, but not allowing it to have more power than is useful. Also, surprisingly, talking about the good magnifies it, briefly talking about the bad diminishes it.

And that little bud – the thing you are looking forward to, positively wraps up the reflection or conversation using the power of what Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman called Peak End Theory. We are most affected by the highest moment of an encounter and how the encounter ends. Peak End Theory is fascinating.  If you have never heard of it, check it out. We don’t remember our full experiences, but little snapshots, episodes – we can use that to our advantage.

The rule of four comes from research in several fields. It seems to take four good things to equal a bad thing.  John Gottman, a famous psychologist, and mathematician used this to help couples have better relationships for example. (I have to throw in this little tidbit from a psych and coach forum I'm on - very tangentially related. Jokingly a couple of participants offered that there are two paths to mental wellness. One is long term therapy and the other is marriage. Marriage is cheaper. Hah. It's funny because it's true in the words of the Simpsons. And even more tangential... new research out about marriage and happiness. Good news for marriage. Fresh off the presses Brad Wilcox - Get Married).

If you read one negative news story, then read four positive ones to put your brain back into a more objective state of mind. If you find yourself noticing that your spouse didn’t pick up the mail like you asked, then take a moment to recall four positive things your spouse did.  You get better over time with this rule of four and rose, thorn, bud approach to working with your brain. (The gratitude journal works well too).

Baumeister and Tierney claim that this approach is like what cognitive therapists do with their clients.  Help them see more objectively and realistically.

Now. How do we keep ourselves from bringing misery on to others, BEING the bad guy and girl ourselves?  One way is to practice The Negative Golden Rule.  First Do No Harm. It is often said that this was part of the original Hippocratic oath. Abstain from all intentional wrong-doing.

Because bad is so powerful, some bad behavior hurts many times more than the good we do.  One instance of infidelity or betrayal REALLY hurts.  You can’t make up for it with a thousand baubles. Abuse. Deeply inflicted criticism with the intention to cause pain. Way bad. Remember The Negative Golden Rule.  Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. Do no harm.

And here’s one BIG hurt you might not think so much about.  Social rejection.  Not including others.  This can be the deepest cut.  Social rejection seems to be the root cause of all the recent school mass massacres.  Belonging to the tribe is how we humans faced predators and problems… collectively. On our own, we are puny little creatures. Leaving someone out hurts waaay bad.

I recently saw the movie Mean Girls (not recommending it!) with my granddaughter and one of her friends. Several scenes mirror the ultimate hurt…not having a place, a person to sit with, in the lunchroom.

We don’t have to spend so much time thinking about how to enact new policies and initiatives to make a better world, if we don’t hurt people in the first place.  It’s tempting to deliver that zinger, to follow our instinctual desires, but no.  Keep your mouth and your pants or whatever buttoned.

I wanted to write this blog quickly because the previous blog with the bad story about John's encounter with a challenging patient seems to have saddened some of you compassionate souls quite a bit. Also I've written a few more blogs in the last little bit because I'm going to be taking a blog break for the next week.  There's plenty for me, and maybe for you, to work on. 

Do no harm. Silver-lining. 4 Roses/thorn/bud. There will be stories and always… learning.

How might we journey together to The Good Life by breaking the power of bad by using the Rule of 4 and the Negative Golden Rule?

(Do you have ways you have beaten bad? I'd love to hear about it, June)








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