The other day, someone in my life who was struggling with feeling "low and flat" said she was going to watch "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" that evening.
"Oh," I said, "Why would you watch that right now? I mean given how you've been feeling?"
"Someone lend me the DVD. It'll take my mind off things," she said.
Indeed, how can you turn down a free movie that promises to take you away?
It turns out that what you watch, read, listen to and play can affect your mood, temper, and even how generous and kind you are to others afterwards!
It seems like TV, movies, games and books are much like food - for your mind and soul. Some are like doughnuts: they "feel good" but leave us cranky - and may not be our top choice before a strenuous workout (life being the strenuous workout, you see). And, some are like protein bars or yogurt smoothies: they also feel good - but have the added benefit of actually helping us feel better and perform better.
So, before we dive into the latest best-seller (great plot with lots of violent scenes), tune into another hour of TV news, or indulge in some angry songs that capture our crappy mood - let's think about the findings below!
TV Programs, Movies, Video Games and News
People who watch as little as 15 minutes of "negative TV news" have shown increases in depressed mood, anxiety, and tendency to be more "catastrophic" about their personal worries.
Watching violent sequences in movies and TV can lead to increases in blood pressure, heart rate and galvanic skin responses - and to "short-term" increases in aggressive outbursts in adults. That is, adults are more likely to lose their temper or express anger in a way that is exaggerated soon after watching a violent TV or movie scene (the findings for children are more long term).
Exposure to violence in films and TV also decreases pro-social (helping and empathic) behavior - and even decreases our antibodies.
No wonder heavy TV watchers are more likely to feel anxious, unsafe and fear personal violence in their daily life.
On the other hand, watching TV shows and video clips with pro-social themes (like people helping others, problem solving, cooperating and being generous) can lead to more cooperation, more positive attitudes, less aggression, and more altruism (behaviors that do not directly benefit the giver, like "sharing", "comforting", "donating" and "offering help").
Similarly, people who spent time playing a "pro-social" video game like "Lemmings" (in which they have to care for and help Lemmings get safely to their homes) showed both short term and long terms increases in real helping behavior and empathy - and had fewer aggressive thoughts, feelings and expectations than people who played "neutral" or "aggressive" video games.
As a side benefit, watching a film about Mother Teresa's work (and focusing on the "loving relationships" in the film afterwards) OR watching a funny film (non-aggressive), increased people's production of the protective immunogloblin A (one of our first lines of defense against attacking micro-organisms).
LET US: Say no to that violent action flick or police docu-drama and make Thursday night Feel-Good Movie night! Or, for some non-violent news coverage, I found the Huffington Post's "Good News" section pretty positive, if sometimes quirky.
Turns out - even music with aggressive lyrics is associated with more aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Sheesh!
On the other hand, listening to music with pro-social lyrics (about love, friendship, hope) was linked to increases in helping behavior, care for others, and generosity - as well as decreases in aggressive thoughts, behaviors and hostility.
LET US: Find a song with lyrics about love, friendship or hope and pass it on to someone who could use a lift!
Magazines and Books
Women and girls exposed to as much as 3 minutes with a fashion magazine in a waiting room show immediate and significant increases in depressed mood and feelings of low self-esteem.
After reading "extremely violent" scenes in comic books, college students judged an aggressive action from one child to another to be more "hostile", suggested more retaliation against the child, and attributed more negative "intention" to the child than those who were reading less violent books.
LET US: Say no to the latest best-selling thriller or catty romance where people treat each other with disdain and disrespect - and go for something positive and pleasurable instead. Sometimes, a good Young Adult novel can really hit the spot too.
Bottom Line: Life is hard. Why make it harder by letting it ALL in? Let's be more choosy about what comes in and comes out.