Leadership Principle #31: The law of enduring negativity states that human nature continually gravitates toward negative feelings and dissatisfaction. “‘Do not gloat over your brother in the day of his calamity;’” – Ob 1:12a
The prophet Obadiah warned the nation of Edom that their gloating over Israel’s troubles must stop. Ironically, the fathers of each nation were brothers – Jacob, who birthed the Israelites, and Esau, who founded Edom.
The international vendetta grew out of sibling rivalry, which began when Jacob deceptively stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob attempted reconciliation many years later, but Esau’s bitterness ran too deep.
Centuries after Jacob and Esau fought over their inheritance, Jacob’s descendants faced continuing antagonism from Edom. Guiding his people through the desert, Moses requested safe passage through the country, but the Edomite king refused, threatening to attack (see Numbers 20:14-21). Moses was forced to lead the Israelites around the country’s perimeter.
I’ve long observed this law of “enduring negativity” – the uncanny tendency for jealousy, bitterness, and other kinds of negative bias to exhibit unusually long shelf lives. In The Subtlety of Emotions (by Aharon Ben-Ze’ev, MIT Press, 2000), the author writes, “People ruminate about events inducing strong negative emotions five times as long as they do about events inducing strong positive ones.”
Negativity’s emotional power over us is immense. In The Science of Happiness (2006), the authors write, “A melodrama will move us much more easily than a comedy…. If you show subjects in neuropsychological experiments happy and sad pictures, they will spontaneously respond more strongly to the latter.”
Another book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, corroborates: “We experience the pain associated with a loss much more vividly than we do the joy of experiencing a gain.… For no apparent logical reason, we overreact to perceived losses.”
Has the world conditioned us to camp out on negativity? The media certainly focus on the negative, playing to our captivation with the dark side of humanity. Positive stories make good e-mail forwards, but rarely make the news. Whatever the reasons for this unbalanced dichotomy, we cannot deny the human tendency to seek and maintain negative feelings.
As leaders, we can’t force people to be positive all the time. We can inspire them and provide peaks of positive energy, but inevitably their personal fears, biases, and emotions return.
Tom Harper is president of Networld Media Group, a publisher of online trade journals and events for the banking, retail, restaurant and church leadership markets. He is the author of Leading from the Lions' Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible (B&H).