How to Skip the Slant

The world has become a noisy place. Between overflowing inboxes, a constant stream of notifications, and 24/7 cable news, finding quiet can be a challenge.

While we can stem a great deal of information flow to our brains by customizing our smartphone settings, peace is not necessarily synonymous with total disconnection. Information allows us to make good decisions in life. So how do we stay informed without getting overwhelmed, stressed, or depressed?

As a national CBS News anchor turned happiness researcher, I research the influence of news on the brain. In a study I conducted with researcher Shawn Achor and Arianna Huffington, we found that just three minutes of negative news in the morning can increase your chances of having a bad day by 27%. And that was as reported 6-8 hours later. This means that the negative mood you might experience while catching up on the news first thing in the morning can stick with you throughout your day.

But there is a way to stay in the know without getting stuck at negative. First, it is important to think about your options. Too often people I talk to think there are only two types of news stories: negative, sensational ones or drippy sweet, saccharine tidbits like the one with the waterskiing squirrel (no judgement, I love these!). These don’t work in promoting positive change. A barrage of negative news convinces our brains our behavior doesn’t matter. If all we talk about is problems without a focus on solutions, our brain starts to believe that we cannot create positive change in the world. While cute positive stories are a nice break from the negative, they are often also not compelling. But there is an often overlooked third, stronger path. I call it transformative journalism.

Transformative journalism is an engaging, solution-focused way of covering the news. It activates the belief that your behavior matters, engages readers to get involved through calls to action, and presents solutions to problems as opposed to merely showcasing the problem alone. It can take the form of a story about an individual or organization that overcame a challenge with specific, detailed information about how that was done. Stories might also highlight an as-yet unsolved problem in our world and go on to discuss potential or actual solutions people can take right now to help solve it. These stories have remarkable and lasting effects on our brains.

In a follow-up study with Achor and Huffington, we found that when people read articles about problems in the community that also discuss possible solutions, creative problem solving abilities increased by an average of 20% on subsequent unrelated tasks. If we see a path forward and feel a sense of empowerment in one domain, we carry that mindset with us to other things we’re doing during the day. If you fill your brain with even just a few minutes of inspiring, empowering, solution-focused news early in the day, that can make you better at your job or at parenting your children.

If you’re looking for quiet, I definitely advocate cutting down on news consumption. But since we don’t want to live in a bubble, here are some strategies to staying informed in a way that promotes greater well-being:

Skip the angry: If the news broadcaster has an angry tone, know you are being influenced by it. We can be influenced by other people’s nonverbals like tone and facial expression in minutes. A study at the University of California, Riverside, found that when three strangers were asked to sit in a room together in silence for just two minutes, the most nonverbally expressive person influenced the other two. If that person was negative, frowning, with arms crossed, they spread that negativity to the others. Meanwhile, a positive disposition was also contagious. Angry tone, word choice, and shocking images can change how your brain processes the information. Look for facts. Skip the slant.

Clean your feed: If your friends on social media are posting negative content, hide them from your feed. In a study of more than 689,000 Facebook users, researchers found that when someone’s feed was more negative, they were more likely to post negative stories themselves. On the flipside, when our feed is more positive, that increases the chances of us posting positive stories. Just like you are what you eat, you are what you’re fed on social media. Hide people who are bad for your brain.

Get inspired: Most news organizations publish occasional inspiring, solution-focused stories. Skip negative headlines, and consciously look for those motivating stories. If you’re going to take 15 minutes to get up to speed, it is better to read a longer format article that really goes in-depth about a topic and looks at solutions than spend that time surfing trending stories. Monitor your mood while experimenting with this new approach, and I think you’ll quickly see that stories that make you feel hopeful and optimistic can transform your day.

If you’re feeling inspired and you’d like more ways to start off your day on a positive note, join Shawn Achor and me in our free research- and idea-packed Wake Up and Inspire Happiness Video Workshop, based upon our new PBS show Inspire Happiness. Go ahead, create more happiness and success in your life!