Science tells us that complaining is a pessimism workout, strengthening our capacity to spot the dark side in any situation and making it progressively easier to complain even more.
But at the end of an incredibly long and unfathomably negative election cycle, this reality raises a related question. If personal negativity is terrible for your brain, what effects does constant exposure to gloomy news in the media have on our mental health? Is a constant stream of negativity coming from your TV or Facebook feed, just as bad as your own personal complaining?
This is your brain on endless bad news.
It's a disturbing if interesting question, and one Jesse Singal of blog Science of Us addresses in a new and timely post. Thanks not only to the battle for the presidency, but also to a seemingly endless series of crises and losses, we've been inundated with bad news in 2016. Singal asked Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a leading expert on media consumption and the mind, to weigh in. The news isn't great.
Her comments won't entirely surprise anyone familiar with the neurological impact of complaining in general. "Cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies," Singal reports McNaughton-Cassill as saying. Though she adds a faint sliver of good news -- at least the headlines aren't likely to give you a clinical mental illness like PTSD. So that's something.
But sadly, what's true about personal negativity seems to be true about media negativity too -- it strengthens our tendency to see the bad in the world and it makes easier and easier to be pessimistic. As as Singal memorably expresses it, "when you can have news of every civilian death in Gaza or every Islamic State military advance streamed to you in real time. People could be forgiven for adopting a hell-in-a-handbasket stance toward the rest of the world."
Which, as Singal points out, isn't only depressing, but also politically worrying. "When people are led to believe things are falling apart, it affects their decision-making and their politics -- whether or not their pessimism is warranted. We already know from political-psychological research that the more threatened people feel, the more likely they will be to support right-wing policies. And people who believe in the concept of unmitigated evil appear more likely to support torture and other violent policies," he writes.
So what do we do about it?
Unless you work in a newsroom (or have a solution to our toxic politics or the war in Syria, in which case, please share!) there's not much you can do about the negativity of the headlines, so how can you protect your brain?
"Just turn it off," is McNaughton-Cassill first and simplest bit of advice. But if that's not realistic for you for whatever reason, there are other options. Check out Singal's post for more of her suggestions on keeping your perspective amid the monsoon of grim news. Or read up on others' advice on how to hold onto your sanity and optimism despite the lunacy you see every day in the media.