The news landscape today is very different to the 80s, when I grew up.
Back then, it was mostly local news, from local TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers. Now, we are hyper-connected. Many of us turn to the internet for information, and, consequently, we hear just as much international news as we do local. Stories from around the world seem much closer to home, particularly as our social networks share their commentary and we engage in discussion and debate. It’s too easy to become consumed by the news, as there is seemingly unlimited access to stories, articles, and videos on which to comment.
Notably, most of the “newsworthy” headlines point us towards unpleasant news. Daily, we can find stories on child abuse, domestic violence, animal cruelty, drug addiction, environmental chaos, political scandals, and human rights violations. It’s no wonder that we perceive the world in a state of decay and decline. And, it’s no wonder that many of us feel despondent, stressed, worried, and sad – for some of us, to the point of clinical depression or anxiety.
Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to remain positive, even in a world of turbulence and turmoil.
- Know your brain
Did you know that our brains are wired to focus on negativity? It’s why we might receive nine compliments about our haircut, but we disproportionately focus on the one negative comment.
This “negativity bias” is how we survived in pre-modern times. Thousands of years ago, it was this ability to filter out benign information to focus on potential threats, which often meant the difference between life and death.
Of course, today, we’re faced with fewer sabre-toothed tigers than our ancestors, but our neurobiology remains the same. Our negativity bias is what compels us to focus on news about tragic deaths, scary diseases, and violent crimes. Knowing and recognising our bias means that we can think twice before clicking on that potentially unpleasant article.
- Maintain perspective
It’s important to remember that our hyper-connectivity may give the impression that there’s more “negativity” and “bad news” than ever before – however, this is likely to be a false perception. Although it might seem like there’s more crime, violence, and abuse than ever before, statistically, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Our hyper-connectivity means that we’re spending more time focusing, thinking, talking, and sharing about the news (often “bad news” – as per our negativity bias) than ever before.
The goal of most articles, blogs, videos, and images is to get us to feel something. Our negativity bias means that the items that garner most of our attention, are the ones that generate the most “uncomfortable” feelings like worry or sadness.
For many of us, spending significant amounts of time online can contribute to chronic feelings of depression or anxiety. Along with our negativity bias, we may experience constant social comparison and FOMO, which fuels our uncomfortable feelings and encourages us to focus on the worst of humanity. The antidote is to be judicious about how we use our time and attention. For many of us, it boils down to one word – unplug – to feel more positive and content with life.
- Be aware
Many of us are no longer attuned to how we’re feeling, particularly when we’re occupied with an activity such as browsing Instagram. We might find ourselves watching or reading something that makes us feel sad, scared, or surly. Yet, we push on, unaware of these faint stirrings of emotion until the feelings are so intense that we can’t help but notice them.
By then it’s often too late, and our feelings take hold. Emotions are like a runaway train – the more they build up steam, the harder they are to stop. When we’re intensely emotional, it’s difficult to remain rational, logical, or objective. Our negativity bias takes hold, spiralling us into a vicious cycle of discontent and destructive thinking.
Self awareness is key. Managing the faint stirrings of our uncomfortable feelings, and acting accordingly, can be the difference between a bad moment and a bad day. It’s a skill that may not come naturally to everyone, but can be easily cultivated. Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are a means of becoming more aware of our internal environment – our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
- Develop healthy habits
There is a wealth of psychological research that shows the benefit of small, simple habits, such as practicing gratitude, meditation, spending time with friends and family (and pets), regular exercise, and using our online time to cultivate relationships rather than simply scrolling through our newsreel. One of the best things we can do for our emotional health is to identify those habits that lift our spirits, and then, turn those activities into habits.
Just like our physical health, our emotional wellbeing is created from the consistent positive actions we take each day.