Earthquakes! Murder! Genocide! Environmental destruction! Lions! Tigers! Bears! Oh, my! The media – from news to television series to popular novels – often feeds us a continuous diet of violence, destruction and suffering. What’s the effect of this?
Research has shown that the more television a person watches, the more violent they judge the world to be and the less happy they become. News broadcasters are masters at pulling our emotional strings with stories of tragedy and violence that feed off our fears. Novelists and movie-makers come up with some pretty outrageous ways people can treat one another (yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m talking about you!). While this keeps us tuned in and buying tickets – it comes at a significant cost to our emotional well-being – that fear, sadness and anger really register in us and make it difficult to reach that 3:1 postivity ratio that can lead us to living a flourishing life.
Several years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop listening to NPR during my commute. Instead of getting riled up about the most recent political decisions, I decided to listen to books about how to be happier in my life. I kept up-to-date on the outside world from a 10-minute look at CNN.com each day where I could consciously decide which stories got my full attention. My worry that I wouldn’t be as educated about the world was put aside when I saw the results of another set of studies: it turns out that people who watch less TV are more accurate judges of the degree of risk we all might encounter each day. TV gives us a sensationalized and one-sided version of news that makes the world feel significantly less safe than it is.
And it’s not just about news. Other forms of media – video games, movies and even fictional books – can have the same effect. Personally, I saw my own negativity skyrocket this past spring when I got sucked into an epic fantasy series with grand battles of good vs. evil. I was so engaged in the story that it started taking over my mindspace even when I wasn’t reading it. I started blowing off my daily gratitude journaling and meditation to spend more time reading; I even rushed through story time with my kids to get to ‘my time’ with the books. This constant feeding of conflict, narrow escapes and evil deeds kept me in an adrenaline-infused negative space. And that leached into other areas of my life. I started being more suspicious of everyone – empathy and kindness fading to distrust — and kept seeing what was likely to go wrong in every area of my life. After about a month, my world view became bleak and I felt the fear of failure get a strong hold on me. When I finished up the series, it took me a couple months to dig myself out of this negativity trap I’d fallen into. That a series of fictional books was able to have such an effect on my real life was a shock.
This has been a difficult post for me to write. I don’t like how preachy this topic sounds –”Halo is bad for you!” or “Watch less TV” – but our elders who tried to get us outside and doing anything more active were on to something. We do take on the emotions of what media we consume – both real and fictional. So if video games or tv is a good way for you to decompress, you don’t have to completely remove them from your life. But notice how you really feel during and after these experiences and ask if it is how you want to spend your time. If you are serious about upping your ratio, reducing violent media exposure is a relatively easy way to lower needless negativity.
Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we talk about how to make long-term changes in your life – whether it’s starting an exercise routine, bringing on a gratitude practice or watching less tv. I’ll be sharing scientifically proven ways to implement new habits into your life.Eric Karpinski The Happiness Coach