It's an age-old tradition we all recognize from classic sitcoms and possibly our own childhoods: parents sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper while the kids eat their cereal.

These days the morning news habit has had a few modern updates - we're more likely to get our news from social media feeds and iPhone apps than from a folded up bunch of paper - but the ritual of checking the headlines first thing remains. After all, don't we all have a responsibility to be informed citizens given as we live in a democracy?

But while the rationale for a morning news check remains unchanged, the headlines at this particular moment have grown increasingly grim. Nuclear threats, natural disasters, political name-calling, legislative gridlock, and general division and strife fill the news each morning. Which is why, according to new research, you really may want to rethink when and how you consume your news.

3 minutes of news leads to 8 hours of grumpiness.  

The set-up for the study was simple. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, psychologist Michelle Gielan, and HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington teamed up to test the effect of brief exposure to the news on a group of 110 study subjects. Half of these volunteers consumed the usual grim fare found in newspapers for three minutes. The other half watched more uplifting stories of disadvantaged kids struggling to win a school competition or an older man bouncing back from previous failures to finally get his GED.

Absolutely no one was shocked to see the latter group was more cheerful after their experience than the former, but the extent to which just three minutes of negative news exposure could affect a person's day did surprise the researchers. When they questioned participants about their mood a full six hours later, "the effects were much more significant and dramatic than we expected," they wrote on HBR.

"Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition," the researchers continued.

In short, just a few minutes at glancing at negative headlines has a pretty good chance of ruining your mood all day. And I probably should point out that this 2015 research even predates the current presidency and all the nastiness it's stirred up. Today's headlines are, if anything, even more toxic.

The researchers even speculate (though they haven't yet proved) that the negative moods produced by even a little exposure to negative news is enough to impact our performance at work.

"We believe that negative news influences how we approach our work and the challenges we encounter at the office because it shows us a picture of life in which our behavior does not matter," they write. "We see the market dropping 500 points or ISIS poised to attack, and we feel powerless to change those outcomes. In psychology, believing our behavior is irrelevant in the face of challenges is called 'learned helplessness,' which has been connected with low performance and higher likelihood of depression."

OK, so what should I do about it?

So is the answer just turning off the TV, refusing to tap that newspaper app, and filtering all the politics out of your social media feeds? Of course not. As citizens and as workers we need to know what's going on in the world. But the researchers do recommend that people be more thoughtful about the dosage and timing of their news, suggesting three simple changes to protect your productivity from toxic headlines:

  1. Turn off news alerts: "Since the majority of new alerts are by default negative, try turning them off for one week... If there's anything really important happening, you'll hear about it soon enough."

  2. Cancel the noise: "In the same way you might cancel the noise on a plane using headphones, you can turn your brain into a noise-canceling machine by practicing meditation."

  3. Change the ratio: "Start your day with empowering, solutions-focused news... like Huffington Post's new What's Working series or CNN's new impact series."

Published on: Oct 31, 2017