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Switching on the daily news in the morning is similar to a cold slap in the face before starting the day. It’s a discomfort that is somewhat anticipated, but once the barrage of negative news hits we are taken back instantly.
It’s a single file onslaught of murders, terrorism, and violence that parades into your day with no hope or solution in sight. The world starts to paint itself as too dismal and dark a place for individual behavior to render any impact.
The day continues on irrepressibly, and we carry that lack of agency to the interactions with people and events in our lives. This ripple effect that news media can have on individual behavior is something journalist and positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan places special attention on in her hopes to ignite a positive media transformation.
As a national CBS news anchor, Gielan was at the prime of her journalistic success. She climbed to that high-ranking position with stories that bled and fed on the negative side of human nature.
There was one story though that changed the trajectory of Gielan’s life. It reported on the funeral held for a 10-year-old girl struck by a stray bullet from gang gunfire, while celebrating her birthday at home.
“Sitting in the pews of the church, I saw another story unfolding beyond the violent, sensational one we reported the night of the shooting,” Gielan admits in an interview with Huffington Post. “That one centered on a strong community supporting the mother and a neighborhood becoming safer each day (by the stats) due to coordinated efforts by police and citizens.”
It was a narrative of hope utterly vacant from the thousands of stories she told at her anchor desk. She felt compelled to search for a more empowering way of telling stories.
Geilan dropped out of the journalism business to pursue a masters in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania under professor Martin Seligman. Seligman is a renown psychologist and proponent of “positive psychology“–a branch in psychology that focuses on cultivating meaningful, fulfilling lives instead of disorders. It was there that she came to a stunning realization, what would ultimately become the title and premise of her book, “Broadcasting Happiness.”
Geilan sat down with BTR to discuss her revelations and how she is using her research in positive psychology to support journalists towards a more solution-centered approach in covering news.
“I had this epiphany, one about all of us; we are all broadcasters,” Geilan tells BTR. “All of us are constantly broadcasting information to other people and the messages that we choose to broadcast transform how people see stress, change, and challenges.”
There were explanations in the academic literature that resonated with her own experiences as a news broadcaster. The empirical research found that negative messages over time can lead to what is known as “learned helplessness.”
It’s a phenomenon that is widely researched in the field of psychology. Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of “Predictably Irrational,” explains that when the news reels on about things such as the recession, people freeze in fear; they’re too scared to spend money, to lose their jobs, and halt spending all together.
Geilan decided to conduct her own research. In conjunction with Ariana Huffington from Huffington Post, the experiment exposed people to either three minutes of negative news or three minutes of what was called “transformative” news, or news that is inspiring and solution-focused. Six to eight hours later, the same people were tested on a large range of factors such as mood, optimism, how they felt their day went, and the level of empowerment they experienced.
The study found that watching just three minutes of negative news in the morning makes viewers 27 percent more likely to report having a bad day six to eight hours later.
“The results were remarkable because for the people who were in that group who were exposed to the negative news, they had a significantly higher likelihood of having a bad day,” Geilan highlights. “And it shows us that the way we start our days really influences the trajectory.”
In addition to investigating news, she formed strategies in her book that allow individuals to take back the power negative media can have over our lives. Using journalistic tactics like “power leads,” she outlines in her book ways in which we can start off the morning inhabiting more positive territory. It’s a complete inverse of the old media adage of, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
“The power lead is a positive, meaningful start to a conservation, an email, a meeting, a phone call,” Gielan emphasizes. “That simple switch can have a tremendous impact on how the other person responds to us—you are taking the lead on that conversation and you are literally changing how it unfolds.”
Additional research by Gielan found that a conscious shift towards a more positive message within an organization astoundingly raises business and educational outcomes. This includes a rise in sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent, and a reduction in the negative effects of stress by 23 percent. In a study where a manager was asked to deliver one piece of praise to a team member each day for 21 days, that team’s entire productivity jumped by 31 percent.
Advertisers would also benefit from a shift in media optimism, as such stories are significantly more likely to be shared than negative ones. According to these results, the shift should be inevitably apparent to news conglomerates.
“I think that there is a lot of research now that provides motivation for news organizations to make a shift and I know that there are so many journalists that are just waiting for that moment to happen because they got into this business originally to do good work in this world,” Geilan proclaims.
Yet media studies show that dramatic, pessimistic events still hold the largest portion of the news that’s dispersed. This probes at still a larger phenomenon that lies beneath the control of media titans. Perhaps it’s a question of the psychological evolutionary work behind the human mind. A portion of our evolving brains still revels in the drama that once gripped us during the battles against saber-tooth tigers.
The negative wiring in our brain are far more sensitive than the positive ones according to evolutionary neuroscientists. This causes us to be more fearful than “happy” and allows the prospect of danger to captivate our minds far greater than the idea of good things lying ahead.
The problem, however, is that the news appeals to this survival-quest without providing an outlet to squander the profound anxiety it dishes out.
What positive psychologists intend to focus on are the “mirror neurons” that form new habits and wiring in our brains, which can trump anxiety when a safety net of positive perspectives is built. It’s about reprograming the brain to understand the possibility for solutions for the grave issues of our time.
Another focus, and the main focus of Geilan’s work, is the level of social support to combat negativity.
She places unique attention on the individual decision-making process to reach greater levels of happiness on both micro and macro scales. As we understand each other as “broadcasters” in our own right, we strengthen relationship with other people through uplifting exchanges of information that unite people on community and national levels.
“The greatest predictors we have of long-term levels of happiness in the research is your levels of social support,” Geilan explains. “So the more that we can promote a positive brain in ourselves, broadcast that positive mindset to others, the more we deepen that connection. What we see in the research is that it influences every single business and educational outcome we know how to track.”