For the last two weeks, I’ve been walking around in a happiness bubble trying to insulate myself from negativity and what a friend affectionately calls “Eeyores”. The best thing I’ve done to nurture this positive outlook has been to avoid reading the newspaper every morning and to choose not to watch the evening news. This has been a monumental change in my routine because I was a consummate news junkie. In addition to reading the Globe & Mail every morning, I fell asleep to the National every night and was a regular reader of The Economist and Maclean's. Initially I thought I would go through withdrawal not having my daily fix of news, but surprisingly, it’s been the most liberating feeling imaginable. I’ve even unsubscribed to all the news sites in my Twitter feed! I really had no idea the emotional toll that consuming so much negative news had on my outlook and mood.
The latest research in neuroscience appears to back up what I’ve been experiencing, and validate that I am not simply riding on a wave of ignorance-induced euphoria. Focusing on negative, or fear-riddled content for as little as 10 minutes a day can lead to changes in brain chemistry that commonly manifest in depression and increased anxiety. According to Clifford Nass of Stanford University, we process negative and positive information in different hemispheres of the brain. In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, Professor Nass states: “Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events, and use stronger words to describe them than happy ones.”
We see this at play each and every day as we tend to focus in on the one negative feedback our supervisor gave us during a performance review rather than on the ten positive points. Problem gamblers feel more distraught from losing $100 than the joy they feel winning an equal amount. Professor Nass points out that there may be evolutionary theory at play here. Those with a heightened awareness of bad things and negative threats would be more likely to survive and pass this gene on to their offspring.
“Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
Taking all this into consideration, it looks like I’m fighting an uphill battle to stay positive and avoid the onslaught of negative information that appears to be integral for the survival of our species. But wait, all is not lost. Neuroscience offers a glimmer of hope by showing us that the psychological ill effects of negative content can be overcome by increasing our exposure to positive images and messages. Studies have shown that the ratio is 5 good to 1 bad to maintain better psychological health.
Now that I have the science to back me up, here’s my game plan for the coming month. First, I will continue to avoid the news because there is enough negativity in my day. Second, I will smile and say “good morning” to at least 5 people on my morning subway commute to help negate the sour scowls we all encounter on the train. Also, when I need to give negative feedback to one of my students, I will be sure to package that with lots of positive statements about what they are excelling at. Finally, I’m going to give my wife at least five extra hugs and kisses each day because I know I’m not the easiest person to live with.