Just when we thought it was a bit safer to sneak a look at the balance of our 401k plans, just when we were feeling a bit less edgy about the economy, we are hit with a budget crisis in California of alarming proportions, the rolls of the unemployed are increasing, and several other economic indicators do not look pretty.
Is there anything to be happy about in today’s news? As a scientist and an Obama supporter, these days I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Every other news headline appears to send a contradictory message. One warns of the economy in free fall, sending jitters, another about the Obama administration recommitting to serious science or eradicating some nasty piece of legislation loitering from the last 8 years, prompting cheers.
I am particularly struck, however, by how tenaciously negative and pessimistic the media are. Of course, there have been a slew of bad news over the past 9 months, some even terrifying. But is it 100% bad? For every story of “there’s a 5% loss here” or “8% decline there,” there is no comparable information about the 95% or 92% that is still good or decent or the same.
In Southern California, where I live, for many years, the headlines were unremittingly downbeat about the toxic effects of our burgeoning economy on the environment – on pollution, on traffic, on overcrowding at schools. So, for example, a blitz of reports would predictably and regularly appear about increases in port traffic (which clog the freeways, cause respiratory illness, etc.). Not long ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times – a quite depressing piece – exclaimed, boo hoo, port traffic is now decreasing! And regaled readers with multiple reasons for why this was a dreadful turn.
The same point could be made regarding stories in the past bemoaning the fact that “there are too many airplanes in the air,” “too many vehicles on the road,” and “too many factories operating.” Now, the reverse has become terrible news – airlines have reduced the number of flights, car dealerships are shuttering, factories are closing. Change in either direction, of course, is framed by the media as bad news. Bad news sells.
For years, reporters and talking heads and psychologists and columnists bemoaned that people were working too much and spending too little time with family and friends. How there was no life balance.
Now there are stories about people’s hours being cut and California workers being furloughed, which means having more time with family and friends. Which is frightful.
What’s more, the media’s negativity must be highly effective, at least judged by a taxi driver in Sydney asking me the other day “Have all the shops in Los Angeles closed?”…Uh, no, all the shops in Los Angeles have not closed.
In 2008 B. R. (“before recession”), there was a lot of hand-wringing about how people spend too much and how the U.S. has the lowest saving rate of any first-world country, at times dipping into negative territory. (Recall JibJab’s brilliant riff on the average Joe shopping at Big Box Mart for gobs of useless junk – to the tune of Jingle Bells, “Big Box Mart is the place I go to buy all of my crap” – until his house is so full of stuff the roof explodes.) Now there are stories about how awful it is that people are spending less, have fewer “things” at home, and are saving more. Horror.
I understand that there is real suffering and hardship, and this must be reported. I understand that the crisis in the banking system, in the credit markets, and with investor and consumer confidence is very, very serious. We are in an economic decline whose effects may be both long and profound, and we don’t even know how long and how profound. These problems must be faced head on, and members of our young administration are pretty clearly spending lots of all-nighters working on it.
I realize that all the negative slices of news are interpreted as threats, because they are symptoms of a larger ailment.
But is there an optimistic positive angle that is missing?
My and my colleagues’ research suggests that investing in relationships, savoring the present moment, appreciating what you have, and doing kindness for others are the true keys to happiness. Having trouble getting started? Pick up a brand new iPhone app (Live Happy), based on this research. The app will prompt you to assess your well-being, help you identify the strategies that fit you best (whether it’s savoring a photo in your album or texting a gratitude note to a friend), and prompt you to engage in them on a regular basis by using your phone.
And maybe you'll gain a fresh, more upbeat perspective on the news.