Overcoming the Power of Bad

The cascading crises of 2020 have demonstrated the enormous weight of bad news. Here are some strategies to help you cope in case the worst is yet to come.

Photo by Clément Falize on Unsplash

It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a constant stream of dismal news. To make matters worse, bad is much stronger than good, unfortunately.

What do I mean by that? Grim headlines have a disproportionately large influence on your mood and mindset. We pay much more attention to scary or sad stories than we do happy ones.

There is a good evolutionary reason for this. We are hypersensitive to these cues because they are harbingers of potential threats. The foragers out on the savannah who ignored that rustle in the grass as “probably nothing’ didn’t get the opportunity to pass on their genes when it turned out to be a rattlesnake. We are all descendants of people who locked into danger signals, even when they turned out to be false alarms. Fast forward 50,000 years, and we find ourselves in a society where cable news chyrons follow the age-old advice that “if it bleeds, it leads” while alarmist headlines (“COVID-19 may be with us forever”) masterfully attract my attention (and probably yours).

While this brain bug used to make intuitive sense, it’s become a design flaw that we have to actively manage. That’s because the “power of bad” is not just a tendency; it’s a natural law that we encounter in all sorts of human behavior and experiences. Psychologists who study this phenomenon have been able to spot it at work in everything from media trends to marriages. Moreover, it’s a remarkable force that distorts, in a surprisingly predictable way, many aspects of human interaction.

The Rule of 4

Did you know that counselors can accurately predict how likely a couple is to divorce simply by counting their conversations? It turns out that the ratio of positive to negative comments they direct to each other is a great indicator of marital bliss. The magic number is four: when couples say nice things to each other 4 times as often as they do nasty ones, they’re in good shape. If the ratio is closer to 2 to 1, they’re almost certainly doomed. Likewise, if husband and wife report having 4 good days for every bad day, they will likely celebrate a silver anniversary someday. Anything less and you’d better start putting your names in each other’s books …

In ways big and small, psychologists have determined that bad news is 4 times “stronger” than good news is. Put another way, the emotional equation does not balance equally: we need 4 positive experiences to offset one bad one.

Have you ever tweeted something that attracted a ton of likes, only to have your eye and attention gravitate immediately to one trolling comment? Perhaps you have enjoyed a perfectly pleasant Sunday, complete with sunshine and good times with friends, only to have it marred by an unwelcome parking ticket? Pick your scenario, but I bet you’ve found yourself in a bad mood because of something small in the grand scheme of things. That’s the power of bad in action.

2020 has kicked that emotional reflex into overdrive. Given all that’s transpired, we can’t help but doom scroll through our social feeds and cringe at the next catastrophe lurking around the corner.

If you find these feelings familiar, you’re in good company. As someone who speaks to executives every day as part of my work (and friends around the world as a way to stay sane and connected), I can tell you that almost everyone is feeling distressed and sometimes even depressed right now. You’re not alone; we’re all in this bad place together.

We need a better strategy than “misery loves company”, however. Here are a few perspectives to keep in mind as we brace for what comes next.

Be happy now. It can always get worse

This a half-humorous mantra that I’ve found myself invoking recently, but there’s a method to my madness. In a year where bad news happens in bunches, it’s easy to overlook a (relatively) good thing when we have it. As trying as the spring lockdown was, we might look back on it somewhat fondly — particularly if the case numbers that we are experiencing now continue their climb past their April peaks.

The lesson here is that things can deteriorate. The state of play today may not be that terrible with the perspective of time. As much as I hate that my gym is closed right now, at least I can still get a haircut (for now) and sit outside for a meal. As frustrating as September was for Parisians (compared to last September), I bet they wish it was Labor Day again as they face a second, more dispiriting national lockdown. So count your blessings instead of feeling sorry for yourself.

Put bad things into their proper context

I have a friend who admitted to me this week that he’s lost sleep because he can’t stop reading about the US presidential election. Normal, right? Except that he lives in Sydney, Australia and he’s not American. As someone who worked on Capitol Hill for 6 years, I understand how easy it is to get worked up about who sits in the Oval Office. But even a reformed political junkie has to ask: does the President have that much of an effect on your day-to-day life? Probably not. So do so many other “distressing” news items, when looked at with the cold light of logic.

For instance, I was devastated by the season-ending injury sustained a few weeks ago by my Dallas Cowboys’ QB, Dak Prescott. But should I have been? I’m reminded of a great line in the movie (not the book) “Fever Pitch” when one character chastises his buddy’s fanaticism for the Boston Red Sox. “You love the Sox; but … have they ever loved you back?” As far as pop philosophy goes, that’s a home run. We should always try to pull the camera back and look at the big picture. Does the [insert unfortunate incident here] matter as much as you think it does?

Of course, there’s another way to reframe your situation, and it’s by realizing that as bad as things feel for you, others have it a lot worse. A great strategy, therefore, is to focus on what you still have (health, job, and loved ones hopefully) while being grateful for your relative good fortune. In times like these, I like to quote the great philosopher-turned-country-singer Sheryl Crow, who sagely pointed out that “happiness isn’t getting what you want; it’s wanting what you have.”

Worry mostly about what has actually happened (rather than what could)

As one who counsels clients about red teaming and having a plan a, plan b, and plan z, I get it. My Dad drilled into me that you want to face the day wearing a belt and suspenders. But being prepared with contingencies is not the same as ruminating about terrible things that may never come to pass. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Instead, take each day as it comes rather than fretting about the worst-case scenario. Distinguish between the possible and the probable. Above all, concentrate on what you can control. Special Operators talk about maintaining “front sight focus” and “staying in your three-foot world” to stay cool under pressure. Their wisdom applies equally well to challenging missions as challenging years.

Manage your emotional and information diet

If bad news is 4 times more powerful than good, doesn’t it make sense to limit our exposure to the former? Yet how many of us get lost in the endless loop of our favorite cable news prime time programming? When we’re trying to eat healthily, we cut back on junk food. We should be equally vigilant about our information diet, and mind what we watch, read or scroll. Steer clear of the prophets of doom on TV or Twitter. They are part of a crisis industrial complex that gets paid when you click on their links — and frightening ledes grab your attention so much more effectively than feel-good stories do.

Depressing headlines are not the only harmful risks out there; depressing people are as well. Emotional states are contagious. You can “catch” feelings just like you can a cold or coronavirus. Have you ever found yourself in a bad mood but don’t know why? Often it can be traced to hanging out with someone whose dark disposition has transferred over to you. Worse, feelings are more transmissible when they’re negative, and bad emotions tend to last longer than positive ones. Not surprisingly, research has shown that people who interact with a depressed person end up feeling bad themselves afterward.

Protect yourself by exercising what psychologists call “socio-emotional selectivity”. Curate your list of friends as well as your news feed. One popular slogan in the personal development space is that “we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time.” Our friends have an outsized influence on our behavior and mindset; you’re much more likely to be fit if you hang out with friends who exercise regularly, for example. So pick your peers carefully.

Preserve an optimistic outlook at all costs

Happiness is actually more of a choice than we realize. We should intentionally cultivate an optimistic outlook — even and especially when it seems at odds with the current moment.

I learned recently that the difference between cheerful and depressed people is more contingent on their subjective interpretation of life than their objective life circumstances. In other words, trying times do not trigger a depression; it’s the lack of hope that does. Pessimism is also strongly correlated with everything from poor health to suicide. Your mindset matters — a lot.

Think of optimism as a flickering flame keeping you warm and looking expectantly towards the future; we need to protect that fragile source of positive energy at all costs.

There’s another good reason to be sunny in the face of adversity. You’re more likely to experience post-traumatic growth (PTG) instead of PTSD. This might surprise you, but PTG is actually far more common than its better-known opposite. Studies have shown that 60 percent — and sometimes as high as 90 percent — of trauma victims grow from difficult experiences. Why? Challenging moments often prompt us to discover a new appreciation for the simpler things in life, deepen our relationships, and develop greater self-confidence.

While you don’t want to live in an alternate universe, being relentlessly positive is a life philosophy that helps you cope productively with a crisis.

Getting the better of the “power of Bad”

Use these strategies the next time you get blindsided by bad news:

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Ion Valis

I share the best insights from science, strategy, and philosophy to help people perform, transform, and flourish. | www.IonValis.com