Why no news is good news (for your mood)


If like me you’ve recently been glued to the television or radio keen to keep yourself up to date with the latest insights surrounding BREXIT and Donald Trump then this blog is for you…

I’m not usually much of a newshound, but just lately due to the uniqueness in the things that have been going on I’ve turned into the news equivalent of a drug addict. Those constant dopamine hits every time I open up the shiny BBC news app on my phone in anticipation of getting my hit are so powerful I’ve not been able to resist when I wake up shaking in the middle of the night.

But recently I did a talk on the effects of the news on our minds, so I should really know better than constantly doing the online equivalent of meeting a pimp in a subway at midnight. But just because I should know better doesn’t mean I end up doing better. I’m only human after all.

But here it is for those of you that have the excuse that I don’t have…

What the nerds say

At the start of my research into the topic I came across some research into American news channels ABC, CBS, and NBC which found that 48.1% of the news stories they feature are negative, with only 25% being positive, and the remainder being nondescript. Now, what’s going on here, surely of all the events going on in the world 48.1% of them aren’t negative? I’d guess not but it as it turns out negative news sells far more effectively than good news.

To further highlight this, Outbrain an internet marketing agency did some digging into which headlines get the highest click rates online. And guess what, negative headlines get 65% more clicks than positive ones. In fact, even neutral headlines get a higher click rate than positive ones.

Are we all just sick in the head?

So what’s going on here, do we all just salivate at the thought of bloodshed, scandal and the great British bake off moving channel? Well as it turns out yes we do. But hold on two ticks before you go and scold yourself for being such an awful human being, there’s a good reason why. It’s called the ‘negativity bias’ and it’s the part of our evolutionary conditioning that makes sure we pay more attention and remember negative stuff more easily.

Think how useful this would be for our ancestors living in a much different environment to ours. Nature basically decided that it’s more useful for us to notice things that want to hurt us like snakes than nice things like sunsets. And it’s a good job too, otherwise we probably would have died out thousands of years before the BBC had ever conceived of what a news app was.

Maybe it’s good to know the news

Some might argue that you gain a competitive advantage by keeping up to date with the news. But I heard someone wisely point out that if that were the case surely journalists would be the most happy and successful people on the planet?

Others may also argue that it’s your duty as a citizen to be aware of the news. But consider for a moment, how many of all of the news stories you consumed over the last twelve months were relevant to you and your life? Of those, how many did you take any action on that improved your life or helped somebody improve theirs? Overall, is that a good return on the time you invested?

A study in the international journal of medicine described a study where participants were asked to watch fifteen minutes of news. Afterwards they were either given a guided relaxation exercise or watched a fifteen minute lecture. Everybody who watched the news experienced a negative disturbance to their mood, but the guys who did the relaxation exercise went back to their pre-news mood levels. The guys who watched the lecture didn’t.

The study concluded that even if you distract yourself after watching the news your mood doesn’t then return to where it was before viewing the news, and that you have to actually do a targeted intervention i.e. guided relaxation to get it back to normal.

Circles of influence & concern

In the seven habits of highly effective people Steven Covey talks about how ineffective people excessively people focus their energies in their ‘circle of concern’, which is primarily made up of things that we have no control over such as the weather, the economy, global warming and other peoples behaviour etc.. Whereas effective people focus on their ‘circle of influence’, which comprises the things they can control, primarily their own actions and thoughts. 

Are we learning to be helpless?

The godfather of the positive psychology movement Martin Seligman uses the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe the experience of constant exposure to things we want to control but have no control over which can in fact lead to depression.

But if we think about it the news is overwhelmingly about things we have little or no control over, things which definitely fall into our circles of concern. What is repeated exposure to these stories that we often want to have control over doing to our moods and minds?

A tip from cats

The late pulitzer prize winning author and poet Gwendolyn Brooks who said “there’s one reason why cats are happier than people – cats don’t have newspapers”

I’m going to leave you with that feline thought. It’s February 27th I’m looking forward to a complete news ban in my life once everything has calmed down surrounding Brexit. Care to join me on a mental detox of good books and quality sitcoms?

Jonathan Pittam

Mental health & Resilience trainer

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