3 Reasons to Go on a Good News Diet

Skip the negative news headlines and click on the positive ones.

The other day, buried underneath dozens of unpleasant and scary news stories—about Vladimir Putin, the latest climate disasters, and American politicians competing to be more offensive than the next, I accidentally stumbled upon an uplifting essay. It was titled “The nature of joy,” about how Margaret Renkl woke up to the most beautiful day in the history of the world (which is what her brother calls every day of his life). Renkl described in colorful detail all the delightful animals visiting her garden, including a pair of Carolina wrens, an armadillo, two lizards, robins, earthworms, and a rabbit who seemed to be jumping around for the sheer joy of moving.

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I decided to search for more flowers of positivity hidden under the usual dung pile of threats and abominations in the daily headlines. Good news stories are hard to find, but I came across the article, “What a musician turned cognitive scientist wants you to know about life,” in which Maya Shankar offered lessons from a life filled with unexpected twists (one of her lessons is about the power of “imaginative courage”).

The next day, I decided to completely bypass all the bad news and went straight to an article about how to turn your daily walk into a “micro-adventure” (one suggestion is to take a scent walk, which inspired me to take a stroll and to notice a spot where I get bathed in the scent of lilac every time I walk by).

Today the positive pickings were fewer, but I did click on one about how “six new trail projects in DC get federal grants” and another addressing the mouth-watering question: What’s the best vanilla ice cream? (Some of the entries toward the top of the list surprised me, so I guess I’ll have to do some follow-up research at the local supermarket).

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It’s understandable that we are drawn to bad news. Our attentional systems light up more for bad news than good news (Soroka, Fournier, and Nir, 2019, Soroka and McAdams, 2015), and we are the descendants of people who didn’t ignore potential threats to their lives (a topic we discuss at length in Kenrick and Lundberg-Kenrick, 2022). But there are three reasons we should all change our news diet, to purposefully look for good news, and try to avoid clicking on those stories about things that make us feel scared, angry, or disgusted.

  1. It would be good for your mental health. Bad news is psychologically unhealthy, and a diet of negative news may even make us depressed (Balmas, Atia, and Halperin, 2023). Sure, our ancestors needed to know about real threats in the local environment, but do their descendants benefit from hearing about the worst things happening thousands and thousands of miles away, mostly having no real implications for their everyday lives back in rural Montana or suburban Michigan?
  2. It would be good for society. Balmas and colleagues note that people who read negative news are more likely to feel politically polarized and angry at those nasty people with whom they disagree. Read less bad news, and hate your neighbor less.
  3. If we all started clicking on the positive news, and getting our friends and relatives to develop the same habit, there would be more positive stories in the news. Because people are addicted to negative news, the news media gives us more of it (the ratio of negative news to positive seems to be increasing over time, according to Soroka and colleagues). But the algorithms embedded in the news media are designed to give us more of what we want, so if enough of us boycott the bad news, and reinforce the good news with clicks, it will lead to one of those virtuous cycles, with the result being more positive news stores to choose from.

You may be wondering how you will find out about actual threats if you Pollyannishly only read the good news. Certainly, you want to know if there’s a killer loose in your neighborhood, but do you really need to hear yet another story about the crazy things the most loony politician just said in Washington, or the latest crimes or falsehoods committed by that same guy who hogs the headlines almost every day? You could limit yourself to one day of bad news per week, which in my case, would sure save a lot of time. I could use that time to walk outside to talk face-to-face with my neighbors about how things are going in my neighborhood, or even to just listen to the birds and smell the flowers.

References

Balmas, M., Atia, R., & Halperin, E. (2022). The Mediating Role of Depression in the Relationship Between News Consumption and Interparty Hostility During Covid-19. International Journal of Communication, 17, 304-330.

Kenrick, D.T., & Lundberg-Kenrick, D.E. (2022). Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human evolution and the 7 Fundamental Motives. Washington: APA Books

Soroka, S., Fournier, P., & Nir, L. (2019). Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(38), 18888-18892.

Soroka, S., & McAdams, S. (2015). News, politics, and negativity. Political communication, 32(1), 1-22.

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