Does watching cable news, reading the newspaper or browsing websites (including this one) make you personally miserable? Chances are high that you're making one critical mistake and likely adding to our societal woes in the process. The good news is that it's fairly easy to fix this common mistake and in this process quickly boost your own inner joy.
It's simple: be less partisan, less biased and less antagonistic toward your fellow human beings.
The advent of clearly-slanted cable news networks (on both the left and right), combined with the ease and ubiquity of a certain species of blogs and bloggers, has quickly pulled many of us into a morass of unhinged negativity. Whether it's the latest personal vitriol aimed at Meghan McCain for merely sharing a political opinion, articles on leaders and advisers trading blame, pretty much any sports forum anywhere or even the comments posted when any celebrity makes a mistake that makes news, I've come to see that we've all taken the need to voice our opinions and shout-down others much, much too far.
Beyond causing a breakdown in civil discourse, many of us are keeping ourselves in a nearly perpetual state of outrage, contempt for those who disagree with us and a cascade of needlessly mean-spirited thoughts and feelings. We can't possibly be happy and feel inner peace while we're flying off the handle, relentlessly criticizing others or generally spewing hatred and intolerance.
Study after study shows that negative thoughts and emotions distort our ability to perceive reality accurately. When we allow ourselves to become relentlessly partisan and biased, we lose touch with truth.
A recent interview, based on scientific research, given by Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and Jason Reifler at Georgia State on NPR's "Morning Edition" proves the point:
When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can't.
But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president's control.
The flipped perceptions on gas prices aren't an aberration. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard (emphasis added).
As I wrote about extensively in The Bliss Experiment, our choices and outlook, whether positive or negative, greatly shape both our inward mental state and even our outward environment.
An amazing series of studies published in the journal Psychological Science demonstrated that between two groups of people with the same quality of eyesight, those who were encouraged to feel positive about their visual acuity (specifically the ability to see at a distance) scored better on eye exams than those who had negative beliefs about their ability. Think about that: both the pessimists and the optimists had the same physical capabilities and eye functionality, but those who believed they could see well really did see more. Optimism and pessimism literally changed the subjects' perception of reality. Put another way, their beliefs changed their physical reality. Positivity literally helped them see more clearly.
Most importantly, needless partisanship and negativity comes at a great personal cost. Studies show that dwelling on highly partisan, critical, negative, or mean-spirited thoughts lead to:
- Higher levels of depression and anxiety
- Less successful job performance, negatively impacted careers, less money earned
- Less successful marriages and romantic relationships
- Fewer friends and close relationships
- More chronic health problems
- Shorter life spans
The bottom line is this: It's time for all of us to reassess our reflexive partisan negativity, no matter the issue, and no matter how "right" we think we are. Every time we mean-spiritedly call out another human being in our blog posts, comments, reviews, on television or in public discourse, we make the world that much worse of a place. Further, we dramatically reduce our own happiness -- and even life spans.
There's a lot we can do to help ourselves and society. Here are two ways to begin:
1. Stop the madness
First, it's time to stop supporting relentlessly combative media sources -- of both the left and right. If you want to participate in social and political dialogue, do it in a thoughtful, even-toned way. Help to elevate the conversation, not drag it down. And if you don't think you can participate without getting caught up in your negativity, walk away. Find some other way to make a positive contribution to society. There are thousands of them out there.
2. Be mindful
Don't misunderstand: giving thoughtful, impartial advice and criticism is not only acceptable but essential to helping each other learn and grow and for creating a thriving, engaged citizenry. But we must never lose sight of our true goals: to make ourselves better people and our world a better place.
Remember: this is never accomplished through mean-spiritedness or hatred.
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