Good news doesn’t just cheer us up

 

/ Culture

18 Aug 2014

 
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Studies have shown how we are more likely to remember negative events than good ones, which may be a factor in the media’s focus on bad news. But good news does more than simply cheer us up; new research shows how it also affects behaviour and benefits society

 
New research shows that reading good news not only lifts our mood, but can also change attitudes and help create a better society     Photo © Nicola Slawson

While reciting the epitaph of Julius Caesar in an intense moment of the Shakespearean play, Anthony says: “…the evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones”. This statement could be just a brilliant theatrical example of Roman public speaking, however, what Anthony says seems to be true for a lot of us.

In fact, several studies show that the majority of people are more likely to remember being hurt or unfairly treated by others rather than remember when they have experienced kindness and generosity.

This could be one of the explanations behind a bias in much news reporting. The status quo in journalism is to consider bad news such as terrorism, murder or natural disasters more newsworthy and attractive to readers than positive stories. Although it may be true that negative stories have a greater power in human memories than the good ones, there is no scientific evidence showing that people prefer bad news.

On the contrary, several studies show that good news has a strong positive psychological and social impact on people. According to research published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when people are experiencing acts of extraordinary moral goodness they can experience ‘moral elevation’, a psychological condition that contributes to the development of positive thoughts and emotions such as admiration, affection, and love. It can even cause physical reactions that cause a lasting influence on people’s future actions.

“Studies show that good news has a strong positive psychological and social impact on people”

This phenomenon is often in relation to how we feel when we see an extraordinary object, such as a painting, or a sculpture. However, researchers argue that when moral elevation is stimulated by exposure to actions of ‘extraordinary goodness’ – for example through the news – people can be moved and in some cases transformed. In this case, moral elevation can produce specific physical reactions, such as a sense of heat (mainly found in the abdominal area) and physical feelings of emotion like a lump in the throat. Eventually it can lead to more empathic attitudes, increased social interactions, and other behavioural changes known as prosocial actions.

Although such reactions have been registered in almost all study participants, psychologists have found that everyone has a unique moral identity. This is what influences us when we make a choice. People with ‘higher’ moral identity are more likely to experience moral elevation, but almost all individuals when reading, watching or listening to news of ‘extraordinary goodness’, experience a more positive predisposition towards others and are more likely to behave in a prosocial way.

The chemistry of good news

Although there is not yet extensive research on the psychological or physiological response to witnessing good deeds, several studies show that emotional reactions to virtue (or moral elevation) may involve the release of oxytocin.

Best known as the cuddle drug, oxytocin is a natural hormone, for which increased levels in the blood have been associated with feelings of contentment, confidence, wellbeing, empathy, satisfaction and love, as well as with combating anxiety.

The American neuroeconomist Paul Zac, who has conducted several studies to measure the relationship between morality and oxytocin, is convinced that human interaction that takes place through social media can release substantial amounts of oxytocin in the blood. This results in increased connection to others, forming the basis of kind and generous behaviours.

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So why do so many people focus on the bad? Author and personal coach Monica Giordani considers that as well as the media, society and the education system are also responsible for this. “As soon as we grow we learn how to control ourselves and this is because the messages we get from school, family, culture – albeit with a good intentions – are focused toward things that don’t work and what we need to improve.”

From school age, she says, we are judged according to the mistakes that we make rather than being rewarded and encouraged for our natural and individual inclinations. Socially speaking, good actions are often minimised and generally labelled as a normal consequence of educational pressures and social conventions and thus they are taken for granted.

But is there any bigger mistake than taking goodness for granted, considering, as Shakespeare wrote: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Perhaps if we were to focus more on the good, we would find that the world is not in fact as weary as we’ve been led to believe.

Positive News is currently collaborating with Buone Notizie to share our learning about how to create a more constructive news media. This work is being supported by Regione Lombardia in Italy.

Our research and will inform further development of the ‘constructive journalism’ concept, which is being promoted by the Transformational Media Initiative, a network with which Buone Notizie and Positive News are partners.

 
 

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9 comments:

  1. Briana Blair says:

    I very much believe that we need to spread more good news, which is why I subscribe to sites like this one. Evil sells and people remember it, but it’s a huge detriment to society. The news needs to take a social stance and start showing more of the things that will create a healthy society instead of simply reminding the world of all the bad things we already know about.

  2. Gwynnie says:

    I wrote about this a while ago in my coaching blog :) – shameless plug time! I wrote about how our brains construct our reality based on our perception of external events. Being bombarded with bad news is likely to make us believe the world is a dark place, and make us feel awful, while websites like this remind us that there is good in the world and give us hope. http://makelifemagic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/happiness-tips-some-news-is-good-news.html

  3. Terry MacDermott says:

    This is a good article, and I share the enthusiasm for Positive News.

    But I have read recently (can’t quite remember where, sorry) that as we evolved we became hard-wired to notice threats (i.e. negative things), these being a threat to our survival, whereas nice things can be taken more for granted.

    There is also the suspicion, not without historic foundation, that keeping a population in a state of anxiety and fear is a way to control them and make them more accepting of oppressive laws etc.

    But we have choices, and certainly much positive news focuses on ordinary communities taking grassroots action themselves to resolve their problems. I suspect the latter can feel threatening to the “elites” who control politics and their own privilege, and also control most of the media.

  4. sparkofragz says:

    Interesting article and great to increase our awareness of how we are drawn to the negative unconsciously.
    I do believe that sticking to positive news has a significant benefit. Last year i did an experiment on myself where i didn’t watch or read any mainstream news for about 6 months. I found that i was more relaxed and that overall i became less stressed. I was happy walking around being oblivious to all the shootings, plane crashes etc and my life was none the worse for it. I found that the absence of negative news has also made me much more sensitive and i find myself being more affected by negative articles now when i read them from time to time.
    Obviously I did eventually find myself being drawn back to the dark side and note the need for my dark side to indulge in mainstream news.
    Based on close self examination I do agree that we are wired to focus on the negative and this is a legacy from our primal brains need to detect any threats but i also think at times we indulge in negative news to feel better about ourselves…macarbe i know

  5. nigel says:

    hi!

    I tried the ‘no bad news diet’ for a while. It definitely worked for me. I felt happier, slept better and worried less about my little boy’s future.

    The problem though is that it feels like as happy, rich westerners we have a moral responsibility to know what’s going on in the world so we can do whatever we can to help. Maybe by giving money to Medecin Sans Frontieres or by writing an email to the Israeli embassy when the Palestinian kids are getting murdered or holding placards at an anti fracking demonstration.

    I always wonder how we can reconcile our personal need to avoid too much bad news with our obligation to know about it. Can anyone think of a positive spin on the ebola epidemic? Perhaps we can find a W.H.O. quote that tells us less people died today than yesterday. Or report on the progress made in stopping a particular fracking project. Then though do we run the risk of dropping our guard and ceasing to be aware, protest, and donate?

  6. Gwynnie says:

    What I suggest in my blog post (posted above) is not to ignore bad news completely but to balance the amount of “normal” (mostly negative) news you read with positive. Living at either end of the extreme probably won’t work :)

  7. Terry MacDermott says:

    I suppose it could be best to keep a general awareness of problems (impossible not to!), but well balanced with an awareness of positive developments, especially instances where people are finding grassroots solutions. I find replacing the optimism/pessimism cycle with a sense of hope has helped a lot.

    But also find an area to be active in where you can make a difference, or help those who have taken on a heavy load in these areas, often without enough support.

  8. Phil Jefferies says:

    It is truly uplifting to see the discussions in this forum. I will read “Positive News” and similar good news media from now on and minimise my exposure to the mainstream news, which often appears to be fear based for profit.

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