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Why We Consume Negative News

Did you know we are actually living in the most peaceful time in human history?

Did you know we are living in the most peaceful time in human history? As we evolve as a species, there is a trend toward growing kindness as predicted by Charles Darwin. While he is remembered as the man who brought us “survival of the fittest," Darwin also argued that our tendencies toward sympathy are instinctual and evolved, and are even stronger than the instinct for self-preservation.

Although the media would have us believe that violence is more prevalent than ever, the facts show the reverse. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker explains that, in fact, violence has declined over the long stretches of history and we are now living in the most peaceful time in human history. He credits the change to four forces: the rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary, commerce, feminization and cosmopolitanism, and the Escalator of Reason.

Pinker argues that a combination of these forces has allowed "our better angels" to prevail and violence to decline. And what are these "better angels"? According to Pinker, they are empathy, self-control, a "moral sense", and reason. Abraham Lincoln famously used these words in the close of his first inaugural address when he said the Union will be healed "when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Violence was a necessity for our ancestors. Our fight or flight response is deeply ingrained in our brain. We could not survive without it. It is fast, automatic, and essential. But in our modern and very complex world, it often gets triggered when not needed. When arguing with a loved one, sometimes we feel as if we are threatened and our fight or flight response kicks in. Our blood pressure rises, our heart rate picks up, and we are ready for battle. Not too helpful when your partner/spouse simply asked if you picked up dinner or why you were late again. We all know that feeling. Examples abound about how our ancient circuitry gets activated over relatively trivial offenses; think road rage...

Kindness is equally essential for survival. No man is an island. In fact, as a species, we have remarkably dependent young who rely on our kindness for many, many years. Kindness binds us together and helps us achieve what no man alone could do. Our ancient relatives probably traveled in groups of around 150 people. Now, we can interact with more than ever imagined in our flat, globalized, and profoundly interconnected world. Teens today who process information very rapidly may interact with 150 people or far more in a matter of seconds.

Kindness creates connection. Connection causes the release of oxytocin, the love or cuddle hormone. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that is released when we feel close to another person. Nursing, sex, touching, and even laughing together all cause its release. In fact, I think every pet owes its life to the owner’s oxytocin receptors. Animals are powerful stimulators of oxytocin as they touch, lick, and make us feel loved; consequently, we are very bonded to them. Young animals that need care are even better oxytocin stimulators. Just look at the myriad sites on Instagram that show us puppies and kittens. Now you know why there are so popular. If you are ever feeling down, dive into one of these sites and feel the difference. Oxytocin has well-documented health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate, decreasing inflammation, and speeding wound healing.

Acts of kindness can also come from our primitive brain when we leap into action to save someone before even thinking. But most acts of kindness require sustained mental effort. Over the last ten years, we have been flooded with books on happiness and mindfulness. We are learning how to create a better life and take responsibility for how we feel. Happiness—like sadness or lust or anger—are all fleeting emotions. So is kindness. Just as you can train your brain to focus on happiness, so you can train your brain to focus on kindness. Brain science has advanced radically and people are taking control of their lives as never before. Wellness is within reach. When one feels well, the need for violence is almost entirely eliminated.

But the problem is that our brains are wired to look for danger. Our prehistoric ancestors who survived were the ones who were best at spotting danger. They passed their genes on to us, and now we can’t help but look for danger everywhere we go. Now you know why you won’t stay up late to hear about a community project to help the homeless but you can’t stop watching/reading about the latest mass shooting. Blame your ancestors.

The National Enquirer began exploiting that inborn trait by showing us graphic images as far back as the 1950s, and the rest of the media copied their commercial success. We are now regularly subjected to images of previously unimaginable horrors—and the more we see, the harder it is to look away.

Our ancestors had one important advantage over us: they never had to worry about potential dangers on the other side of the world. In an increasingly interconnected world with a 24-hour news cycle, however, it is hard for us to put the risks into proper perspective. We live in fear. We watch horrifying acts on the news and our bodies secrete cortisol. Cortisol causes us to hyperfocus and it’s hard to look away. Our focus in times of crisis is being hijacked, and we are obsessed with the wrong things. If it doesn’t have the proper target, fear becomes paranoia. If a saber-tooth tiger is standing in front of you, you better focus and run as if there is nothing else in the world that matters. On the other hand, if you see violence on the other side of the globe, your brain gets confused. If you expose yourself to too much of this violence, you can wreak havoc on your own nervous system.

The media surrounds us with negativity—and I do mean surrounds. Our bodies react by secreting cortisol, which raises our levels of anxiety, depression, and paranoia, which in turn makes us consume even more of the toxic media. That’s the cycle that drives the news business.

That cycle is itself a danger, though. It’s all too easy for it to spiral out of control. Excess cortisol decreases feelings of trust, safety, and happiness. We aren’t as kind to each other because the Neanderthal parts of our brain are too worried we’re about to die at any moment from some unseen threat that could have been avoided if only we’d paid more careful attention to the news.

We have trouble assessing the risks we face in part because we never see examples of kindness. What we are consuming is all wrong for us. If we want to obtain optimal health, we must fight this inborn desire to see horrifying acts and train ourselves to immerse ourselves in kindness. This shift will allow us to continue to evolve in a positive direction, guided by our “better angels.”