Guid­ing the Gloomy

Have clients who are bummed out about So­cial Se­cu­rity? Here are ba­sic mindfulness tech­niques that may help them com­bat their neg­a­tiv­ity.

Financial Planning - - CONTENT - By Paul Norr

Have clients who are bummed out about So­cial Se­cu­rity? Here are ba­sic mindfulness tech­niques that may help them com­bat their neg­a­tiv­ity.

DUR­ING SEM­I­NARS ON SO­CIAL SE­CU­RITY, I OF­TEN en­counter at­ten­dees who are de­ter­mined to see the dark side of every sil­ver lin­ing. I’m sure you’ve had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences with clients.

“I’m go­ing to die young any­way,” they say. Or: “I don’t trust those crooks in Wash­ing­ton.” And there’s the ever pop­u­lar “So­cial Se­cu­rity is broke.”

Wel­come to one of the most for­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cles to help­ing clients plan for So­cial Se­cu­rity: their own neg­a­tiv­ity.

Fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sors have be­come much more cog­nizant of the im­por­tance of So­cial Se­cu­rity plan­ning and the real, demon­stra­ble value that we can pro­vide by guid­ing clients in this process. Yet the per­cep­tual fil­ters, per­sonal bi­ases and men­tal blind spots of clients con­tinue to chal­lenge the most ex­pe­ri­enced ad­vi­sors.

For all of their im­proved ex­per­tise, ad­vi­sors’ best ef­forts to help clients may founder when con­fronted with th­ese seem­ingly im­pla­ca­ble forces.


Neg­a­tiv­ity bias is a very com­mon and im­pact­ful per­cep­tual fil­ter, which de­struc­tively af­fects peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes and per­cep­tion. It is the in­nate ten­dency to overem­pha­size neg­a­tive as­pects in our lives.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search has made a com­pelling case for the wide­spread in­flu­ence of neg­a­tiv­ity in our lives. This was clas­si­cally de­scribed in a sem­i­nal 2001 pa­per in the

Gen­eral Psy­chol­ogy, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” by Roy F. Baumeis­ter, Ellen Brat­slavsky, Ca­trin Finke­nauer and Kath­leen D. Vohs.

Thanks to such in­sights, we now know that in large num­bers we over­re­act to neg­a­tive com­ments, in­sults stick with us much longer than praise and brain stud­ies show greater ac­ti­va­tion to neg­a­tive stim­uli than to pos­i­tive stim­uli.

The English lan­guage con­tains al­most twice as many words for neg­a­tive emo­tions than for pos­i­tive or neu­tral ones. It seems that hu­man be­ings are hard-wired to fo­cus on the neg­a­tive.

In­deed, neg­a­tiv­ity bias can sab­o­tage the ad­vi­sors’ best in­ten­tions and the client’s best chances of mak­ing pru­dent So­cial Se­cu­rity plan­ning choices or any other long-term fi­nan­cial plan­ning for that mat­ter.

Although neg­a­tiv­ity ap­pears to be in­grained into our col­lec­tive DNA, it can some­times still be mod­i­fied to shape a more bal­anced at­ti­tude.

One ef­fec­tive method is to sug­gest your clients use the “3Rs” to rec­og­nize, re­duce and re­place the prob­lem.


Recog­ni­tion is the linch­pin strat­egy that un­der­lies the other two el­e­ments.

For any­one try­ing to be­come mind­ful of pos­si­ble self­de­feat­ing neg­a­tive, be­gin by sim­ply pay­ing at­ten­tion to your chang­ing men­tal and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the course of a day, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to neg­a­tiv­ity when it arises.

Next, don’t judge whether the neg­a­tive state is war­ranted or not but sim­ply make a men­tal note that neg­a­tive thoughts

are oc­cur­ring.

Last, make an ef­fort to let go of the men­tal story or nar­ra­tive that of­ten ac­com­pa­nies neg­a­tive thoughts. Those who are par­tic­u­larly keen on this prac­tice keep a writ­ten log of the var­i­ous oc­cur­rences of neg­a­tiv­ity they ex­pe­ri­ence in the course of a day.

Recog­ni­tion, by it­self, is a pow­er­ful an­ti­dote to neg­a­tiv­ity. The very act of rec­og­niz­ing a neg­a­tive state of mind im­me­di­ately dis­si­pates some of the mo­men­tum of the cur­rent men­tal feed­back loop. Re­peat this again and again and long-es­tab­lished habits be­gin to lose some of their power.


Re­duc­tion is pos­si­ble af­ter neg­a­tiv­ity is iden­ti­fied. This can be ac­com­plished in dif­fer­ent ways. One is to avoid sit­u­a­tions, habits or even other peo­ple that en­gen­der neg­a­tiv­ity. Ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to po­lit­i­cal news, twit­ter feeds and the like is a com­mon habit that can re­in­force neg­a­tive think­ing. You might en­cour­age cer­tain clients to take an oc­ca­sional ”news va­ca­tion” or limit daily con­sump­tion of all forms of news and me­dia stim­u­la­tion to 10 min­utes a day.

Another way to re­duce is to in­ten­tion­ally let go of a neg­a­tive men­tal state when­ever you no­tice it. The old chestnut of count­ing to 10 when you are an­gry works for neg­a­tiv­ity as well.


Re­plac­ing in­volves dis­plac­ing a neg­a­tive state of mind with a pos­i­tive one. For in­stance, when you rec­og­nize a neg­a­tive state of mind, in­ten­tion­ally bring to mind some­thing pos­i­tive. This is not a Pollyan­naish fan­tasy that one’s life can mag­i­cally be happy and trou­ble-free. It is an in­ten­tional prac­tice of re-en­gi­neer­ing some un­healthy habits of think­ing.

Rather than dwell on a ran­dom neg­a­tive event, per­cep­tion or idea, re­place it with a thought about some­thing real that is good and whole­some and makes you feel bet­ter. It could be thoughts of a loved one or of a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, a mean­ing­ful piece of poetry, your per­sonal faith tra­di­tion or the beauty of na­ture.

There is a grow­ing body of re­search in­di­cat­ing that de­vel­op­ing the habit of grat­i­tude and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the good things in one’s life or generosity in deal­ing with oth­ers can pro­vide an ef­fec­tive and pow­er­ful bal­last to neg­a­tive men­tal ten­den­cies. This is a bit like con­sciously re­ori­ent­ing your mind from see­ing the glass half empty to half full.

The very act of rec­og­niz­ing a neg­a­tive state of mind im­me­di­ately dis­si­pates some of the mo­men­tum of the cur­rent men­tal feed­back loop.


Peo­ple strongly in the throes of neg­a­tiv­ity will of­ten re­ject re­place­ment out of hand for any num­ber of rea­sons. For them, it is of­ten best to start with recog­ni­tion and leave re­place­ment as an ad­vanced strat­egy.

Th­ese ideas, of course, are not for every client. But for those who seem im­mersed in neg­a­tiv­ity yet open to do­ing some­thing about it, the 3Rs can be ef­fec­tive.

Manag­ing neg­a­tiv­ity may seem some­what far afield from So­cial Se­cu­rity plan­ning. It’s not. Ex­pe­ri­enced ad­vi­sors know that all of our tech­ni­cal and prac­ti­cal knowl­edge and guid­ance is merely blow­ing in the wind un­less we can get clients to en­gage and ac­ti­vate their bet­ter spir­its.

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