toxic news and pessimism

What if you invited me into your house and I sprayed a noxious gas that made you and your family sick? What if I also dumped a big barrel of stinking sewage on your kitchen floor? You’d likely have me arrested. You’d get out of the house until the mess is cleaned up and the air’s safe again.

Yet we watch toxic videos, read poisonous social media feeds, or consume contaminated news. It’s making us sick. This pessimism plague is a major contributor to lower mental and physical health.

Psychologist Steven Stosny calls this “headline stress disorder.” As he explains, “there’s a lot more competition, so the headlines have to get more sensational to grab your interest. And the easiest way to grab people’s attention is through fear or anger. ”

This barrage of negative news makes it seem like the world’s going to hell. A survey of people in 17 countries asked, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?” 58% choose worse, and 30% choose neither. Only 11% thought things were getting better. In the U.S., only 6% thought the world’s getting better. Another poll of Americans, Canadians, and Australians found that 54% thought our way of life would end in 100 years. A quarter of those polled put the chances of humankind being destroyed at greater than 50%. Now that is sickening.

Does this sound familiar? “We have fallen upon evil times, and the world has waxed very old and wicked. Politics are very corrupt. Children are no longer respectful to their parents.” Sounds like a recent news feed. It was an inscription on a stone from Chaldea in 3800 BCE.

Over millions of years of evolution, our brains hardwired to keep us on high alert for what might kill us. We’re constantly scanning for danger and preparing (i.e., worrying) about how we’ll handle a myriad of potential threats. But what kept our ancestors from being eaten by tigers or killed by neighboring warriors is now poisoning us. The stress is killing us.

Ironically — and tragically — the purveyors of pessimism call their “news” reality. They’re so far from reality they may as well be living on another planet. A very favorite book of mine is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. He tells us, “optimists are the true realists, and gratitude for progress is good for your mental health.”

In 1783 Benjamin Franklin said, “The Progress of human Knowledge will be rapid, and Discoveries made of which we have at present no Conception. I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the Happiness of knowing what will be known 100 Years hence.” Over 200 years later, he’d think we’re living in paradise.

Johan Norberg writes in his book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, “contrary to what most of us believe, our progress over the past few decades has been unprecedented. By almost any index you care to identify, things are markedly better now than they have ever been for almost everyone alive.”

Tomorrow we publish my December blogs in the January issue of The Leader Letter. This issue kicks off our new decade with a reality check. You can face the facts with a tiny sample of just how far we’ve progressed. We are living in the best of times. The world’s never been better — and it’s constantly improving.

May you hack through humanity’s deep pessimistic neuro programming and realize that we’re living the dream.