By virtually unanimous agreement, we are in the middle of one of the most divisive and negative political campaigns of modern times. As bad as things are now, many careful observers of American politics expect that it's only going to get worse between now and November.
While many of us are more focused on the short-term victory of "our" side (whichever side that may be), few have stopped to ponder what the long-term ramifications of relentless negativity may be for us as individuals and as a society.
Sadly for all of us, there is strong scientific, psychological, and even spiritual evidence that immersing ourselves in negativity and divisiveness -- whether through politics, the media, our jobs, personal relationships, or anything in our social environment -- has serious harmful consequences. Put simply, the more we watch, listen, or participate in this parade of relentless negativity, the more likely we are to do severe and lasting damage to ourselves.
A multitude of scientific studies have shown that continually immersing ourselves in negative environments or media landscapes can dramatically impact our mental well-being. The more time we spend listening to harshly negative attacks, the more likely that it will affect us. Here are just a few of the personally injurious impacts to our mental and spiritual well-being we risk by engaging in this toxic environment:
- Polarized and judgmental thinking
- Loss of compassion for others
Just as badly, negative, divisive environments also take a severe toll on our society. Even when the attacks are conducted by "our" side, the long-term result is that we become cynical about democracy and the democratic process, less likely to participate in elections (this may be one reason voter turnout has been trending downward), and more pessimistic and contemptuous about both political parties. Even if our side "wins" the short-term negative campaign war, in the long-term our opinion of "our" political leaders decreases. We eventually come to feel as Mercutio did in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "A plague on both their houses!"
Perhaps worst of all, as evidence by a recent scientific study, the more polarized and negative the environment, the less likely we are to lend a helping hand to those in need.
A recent study on strongly-held moral beliefs published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science uncovers some shockingly painful truths. Kendall J. Eskine, a psychology professor at Loyola University New Orleans, found that those who have strongly-held beliefs and are most "dug-in" about the righteousness of their cause are less inclined to help needy strangers and are much harsher, negative, and more judgmental in their moral attitudes than those with more moderate views.
When we allow our strongly-held convictions to become our defining characteristics of our moral identities, we see anyone who doesn't precisely share our beliefs as a threat or an enemy that must be defeated. We see others not as fellow human beings with their own experiences, struggles, and understanding, but as generic groups of "others" who don't deserve our compassion simply because they don't agree with us. In turn, we become less likely to help others until or unless we are absolutely certain that they hold the same beliefs that we do. That is, unless or until we are sure that they "deserve" our assistance.
So that's the bad news.
The good news is that it needn't be this way. There are a multitude of actions we can take to restore our individual sanity, while improving society, too.
First, if you notice that the constant bombardment of negativity is affecting you emotionally -- you find ourselves depressed, anxious, fearful, angry or swirling with other negative emotions -- take this as an opportunity to either take a temporary break from the media altogether or at least change how and where you get your information. Give yourself permission to go on a "media diet" whenever you feel yourself being affected. It's not always necessary to stay up on every last-minute event or spin cycle to be a generally well-informed citizen.
If completely withdrawing seems unfathomable or unrealistic, consider getting your news primarily through reading -- magazines, newspapers, or online/websites -- instead of through television or radio. Audio and especially visual information penetrates our minds more deeply than the written word. Also, when we read our news, we have much more control over our exposure. We can skip forward or backward, change articles, and generally exert much more influence over exactly what we are, and are not, absorbing into our consciousness.
Second, look for more neutral, bipartisan sources of news, analysis, and commentary. Stay away from the highly polarized and hysterical sources on both the left and right. There are many news outfits that attempt to keep a calm, neutral voice. You may also want to seek out those organizations that are specifically dedicated to fact-checking the claims of all sides, such as politifact.com or factcheck.org.
Third, realize that we -- each and every one of us -- are the key to changing the tone of politics and social discourse. Don't reward politicians, parties, analysts, social scientists, or media personalities who engage in attacking, yelling, bald-faced lying, pandering, or appealing to your fears and anxieties. Demand from others that they concentrate on promoting their positive vision for ourselves and society. Make your own decisions based not on those with the most effective negative tricks, but whom deliver the most uplifting and inspiring vision for society.
Remember, politicians, the news media, and entertainment organizations regularly poll, sample, and take their cues from us, the general public. The moment they see that their negative tactics aren't being rewarded, they will change -- and fast. Remember, these people are mostly just giving us what they think we want. It's incumbent upon us to clearly and decisively tell them we want something better!
Finally, understand that honest and open dialogue and debate is a good thing. Both as individuals and as a democratic society, we need to have frank discussions. We don't always have to agree with one another and it's certainly more than okay to point out flaws in logic, the consequences of certain behaviors or policies, or why one position is more positive and beneficial than another. This is how we learn, change, and grow. It's the very foundation of our democracy.
But we must make a conscious and conscientious effort to practice friendship and compassion while engaging in these debates. Always remember that even those who believe very differently that we do still share 99 percent in common with us. We're all human beings who breathe, eat, and have the same basic brains and bodies, and have the same emotional and spiritual needs. We have much more in common than we have in difference. Don't allow disagreements to blossom into hatred or intolerance for others who don't share your views. Compassion for others is not only the hallmark of person mental and spiritual health but necessary for a positive, thriving society.
As the sage Paramhansa Yogananda summed it up, "Environment is stronger than will-power." Whenever we notice that we're feeling depressed, anxious, angry, or filled with other negative emotions, this is a strong indicator that something in our environment is amiss. One of the first and easiest steps we can take to restore mental balance is to become aware of and change any unnecessary negativity in our external environments. Doing so not only greatly improves our own physical, mental, and spiritual health, but also is a genuine step toward creating a better, more positive society for us, those whom we love, and countless generations to come.
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 Visual and auditory memory. Crowder, Robert G. Kavanagh, J. F. (Ed); Mattingly, I. G. (Ed), (1972). Language by ear and by eye: The relationship between speech and reading.,Oxford, England: Massachusetts Inst. of Technology http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1972-19902-003
 Spatial and verbal components of the act of recall. Brooks, Lee R. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, Vol 22(5), 1968, 349-368. doi: 10.1037/h0082775