Sometimes even the most resilient among us can feel discouraged by news headlines. It’s understandable—inflation, climate change and the war in Ukraine are just a few of today’s most pressing issues, and naturally, they trigger our negativity bias.
Yet the reality is completely different. The Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, performed a study of human history dating back 200,000 years, to the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens. Then he analyzed dozens of different metrics of overall human wellness. Everything from human longevity, to per capita wealth, to infant mortality, to prevalence of war, violence and crime, to deaths by accidents.
By pretty much every measure that Pinker analyzed, today represents a better time to be alive than any other time in the last 200,000 years. “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” Pinker writes, describing remarkable advances in human lifespan (from death happening on average across the world at the age of 30 in 1750, to 71 at the time of the book’s writing) to the eradication of disease and poverty. “The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 percent to less than 10 percent,” he writes, “and within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book, it could approach zero.”
Yet day after day and week after week, I have conversations with people who feel overwhelmed by the scale of human misery. Following, then, are a set of strategies designed to help you cope when the world is getting you down:
No one can predict the future. In some ways, futurists are integral to society. They try to predict trends, which can help us prepare, or consider situations that may be preventable. We look to futurists to help us plan—to decide when to buy or sell real estate, or how to prepare our immune systems before flu season. Yet, it’s impossible for anyone to definitively predict the future. And often, futurists aren’t able to accurately forecast the future. Case in point: In 1904, the New York Times advised avoiding driving cars at fast speeds because our brains wouldn’t be able to keep up. As the year 2000 approached, many believed computer networks would crash around the world. A 2012 BBC report stated that one in 10 people were anxious about the possibility of the world ending on 12/12/21, as per the Mayan calendar. Some thought the world was going to run out of food by 2023, and yet today we have better access to food than ever before. When we focus on what might happen in the future, we’re apt to catastrophize or worry unnecessarily. Instead, try to focus on the present, on fact-based information that will directly affect your life.
Be aware of the media’s negativity bias. As the old adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That still rings true. The media industry is a business and newspapers and social media platforms promote the most attention-grabbing items. Fear-based news stories seek to grab the viewer’s attention and prey on our anxieties. The same is true of social media posts on your favourite platform. By targeting fear, the media outlet is able to persuade us to scroll on. Culpable here is what Pinker calls the negativity bias: “The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains,” he writes. “They dwell on setbacks more than they savour good fortune.” Media exploits that bias by focussing on negative news. So instead of skimming headlines, try to allocate that same amount of time to consuming longer-form media. Trade TikTok for long-form articles, books or documentaries on your favourite streaming service.
Take perspective from your own lived experience. Often, bad news doesn’t directly affect you—even if it’s happening in your country, province or city. In addition, as communications networks have improved, media has developed more capacity to bring you captivating stories, which reflect the negativity bias. Today we’re inundated with info about Eastern Europe’s refugee crisis and drought and famine in Somalia. Pinker addresses this one, too: “As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.” This may be hard to accept when there is a real war going on in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, but if you can, try to look at the whole picture: the rapid creation of vaccines, falling case counts and the efficacy of sanctions in the long run.
Another useful tactic is to focus on living in the moment, and engaging in the world outside your front door. Take a walk in your neighbourhood. Notice the small shop that’s having a sidewalk sale, a laughing family in a playground, the joy of a street gathering or neighbours getting together on a local patio restaurant. Others’ joie de vivre is catching, and can help boost your mood.
Finally, one of the best strategies, in my opinion, is to seek meaning in your own life. Negativity can generate spiral thought patterns—rabbit holes—that are all-consuming. The result is catastrophizing—the idea that immediate circumstances will have disastrous consequences. Interrupt these patterns by maintaining perspective. Connect with friends or engage in a bout of exercise, or, better yet, combine the two with a walk outside. By finding things to do that you love, you will be more inclined to focus on the positive.
Seeking help optimizing your own mental wellness? Arrange a consultation with a Medcan psychologist.