IT STARTED OUT innocently enough. I asked a friend of mine whether he thought the world would be a better or a worse place 100 years from now. Worse, he said.
We had a little discussion about his answer and then went on about our business. A few days later, he said he wanted me to look at a magazine called Colors. Published in Italy, it illustrated some of our global problems graphically. For example, on the back cover were two pictures: One was a man in a polyester jump suit standing on a well-manicured lawn with a nice house in the background, and he was feeding a tidbit to his well-groomed poodle.
The other picture was five or six young boys, dirty and ragged, living in a hole in the street.
The magazine did a good job contrasting how wealthy many of us are in industrialized countries with how horribly many people live in developing countries.
Later, my friend asked me how I liked the magazine.
I replied, It was disturbing.
It's REAL! he said with a self-righteous tone that said "I'm not a person who is afraid of facing the truth."
And that was the beginning of my crusade against bad news. What disturbed me was not the reality of it. I'm well aware of how miserably much of the world lives compared to how even a poor American lives. What bothered me was that the "information" in the magazine was delivered in a context of hopelessness. There wasn't one tiny scrap of any indication anywhere in the magazine that you, the reader, can do anything about it. The world is a horrible place, it seemed to say, and you are helpless to influence it.
If the information had been delivered in the spirit of Here's some bad news, but here's what you can do about it, the same information would have been motivating rather than demoralizing.
But if the reader feels helpless about it or thinks the situation is hopeless, the magazine did harm, and the reader would have been better off without it. Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad news that the viewer can do nothing about. The problems are too big or too far away or too permanent to be able to change. This sort of news encourages a pessimistic view of the world.
Pessimism produces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, pessimism can lead to depression. This is not just an opinion. Lots of research has been done on this subject. A tremendous amount of evidence exists and it all points in the same direction. Pessimism makes people less capable of acting effectively, even in their own best interests. It produces apathy and lethargy. It makes people give up.
Pessimism is bad for your health, bad for your relationships, and bad for the planet (because pessimism not only stops constructive action, but IT IS CONTAGIOUS).
Raw, in-your-face reality is good, but only halfway there. The other half is what can be done about it? If nothing can be done about it, why tell anyone? If something can be done about it, why not give that news too? It is a crime against humanity to do otherwise.
Because of the shock value and attention-getting power of tragedy, horror, and cruel irony, a pessimistic, unconstructive attitude is infecting the minds of more and more people.
It must be stopped. And you can help. Here's how:
1. Stop tuning into any news that makes you feel helpless, distrusting, fearful, hopeless, and that doesn't give you the sense that you can do something about it. If you want to "stay up on the events of the world," try to find sources that don't create pessimism.
2. Pick the global problem that most bothers you and do something about it. If you think there's nothing you can do, then first cure yourself of your own pessimism.
3. Share this article with people you know. And if someone tells you some bad news, tell the person about this information.
4. Read some good news.
5. If a friend of yours seems pessimistic, help her or him become more optimistic. Optimism does not include burying your head in the sand or in the clouds. It is a balanced look at reality. It is practical and effective. As I say in the second chapter of Self-Help Stuff That Works:
In a study by Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland, subjects read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered more of it.
“These are people,” says Aspinwall, “who aren’t sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.” In other words, instead of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look. They do more than look, they seek. They aren’t afraid to look into the situation because they’re optimistic.
Optimism will give you the strength to confront difficult realities with open eyes. Optimism has the potential to be even more contagious than pessimism. If nothing else, optimists tend to have more energy. Optimism is very good for your mood.
But there is something else: Optimism is more ethical. It is more life-giving, more enjoyable. It is more right. Pay more attention to the news you bring into your mind and you will enjoy a healthy good mood more often.