Bad news stories always grab the headlines, while those spreading good news get deprioritized. But this should not be the case.
The draw to bad news
Historically, news stories featuring violence, death, and destruction grab readers’ attention and dominate the news agenda. The phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a saying used in the media to justify this editorial approach.
But while many of us are aware of the negative effect that these kinds of story can have on us, it can still be hard to look away. We’re hardwired to sit up and take notice of them. This “surveillance mode” is considered an evolutionary hangover from when survival odds were increased when we attended to the threats in our environment.
Research consistently shows bad news can have a negative effect on us. During the pandemic, multiple studies linked news consumption to poorer mental health, documenting symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and worry.
Research by the University of Essex found that spending as little as 2-4 minutes on Twitter or YouTube reading about the pandemic affected people’s moods adversely.
However, a more recent study by the same team has found that looking at positive news stories – specifically, videos and articles featuring acts of kindness – can counteract the ill effects of seeing negative news stories.
Less decline in mood
To conduct its study, researchers at the University showed 1,800 participants news stories. Some only saw negative news stories, including footage of the Manchester bombing, animal cruelty, or brutal acts of violence.
Others were shown a negative news story, followed immediately by a positive one. The positive story features such ass of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.
The researchers then asked participants to report how they felt before and after viewing the news content and were asked how inclined they were to believe in the goodness of others.
The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were offered a negative news story. They reported less decline in mood, instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.
Curious to know whether there was something special about kindness specifically, we also tested how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes, or hapless American tourists) fared.
Amusing news helped buffer bad news’s effects news and reduce the mood disturbances they caused. But in comparison, participants who’d been shown acts of kindness reported a more positive mood on average and a greater belief in the goodness of humanity.
This shows there’s something unique about kindness that may buffer the effects of negative news on our mental health. However, further research is needed to establish whether these are long-term benefits, as the study team only measured how people felt immediately afterward.
The power of kindness
There are many reasons why kindness may have this protective effect on our mood.
It is valued universally. Seeing acts of kindness may remind us of our connection with others through shared values. It may also help us maintain the belief that the world and its people are good, which is important for our wellbeing.
Seeing others being helped is the resolution to seeing them hurt. So-called “catastrophe compassion,” whereby positive behavior prevails despite adverse circumstances, relieves the pain we experience when we see others suffering. Or, as one of the study participants explained,
“Knowing that there are a lot of people that are genuinely willing to help those affected by this attack somehow gives me a relief.”
Similarly, other researchers found that even when children had not caused or were not connected to another person’s suffering, they experienced reduced physiological stress simply by seeing the hurt person being helped.
Countless research has shown that witnessing others’ acts of moral beauty, such as kindness or heroism, triggers “elevation” – a positive and uplifting feeling that experts theorize acts as an emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love, and optimism.
It will be important for future research to investigate which specific reasons explain why kindness has the protective effect that this research has demonstrated.
A powerful tool for boosting wellbeing
Kindness is a powerful tool for promoting wellbeing. Research has found that doing an act of kindness a day can increase life satisfaction. And more recently, researchers found that selflessness trumps selfishness to improve your happiness.
Less is known about whether making a conscious effort to notice kindness has the same wellbeing bene. However, one study found that observing others’ kindness is as effective in boosting happiness as performing an act of kindness.
The University of Essex study shows that kindness-focused news stories can take the sting out of difficult, depressing coverage by replacing feelings of despair with hope. As another participant put it,
“I still feel that we’re fundamentally decent … And that’s worth clinging to.”
Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent “mean world syndrome,” where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety, and pessimism.
Other research has also found that positive news – such as bumble bees making a comeback or peace talks going well – makes people feel better and want to do good things, such as voting or donating. This suggests there may be both personal and social benefits to showing positive news.
While it will be up to the media to make the change, this research makes the case for adding more balance to news coverage. Including more stories of kindness may help people feel better able to engage with these stories without perpetuating feelings of doom and hopelessness.
What are your thoughts on the research findings? Do the results resonate with you at all? Let us know in the comments.