When it comes to the news of the day, there are two kinds of people: the Wallowers and the Deniers. Wallowers are the ones who soak up the latest unemployment statistics the day they come out. They actually open up their 401(k) statements rather than just shoving them to the bottom of a drawer and draw pleasure from rants about bloated execs who used federal bailout money to give themselves fat bonuses. The Deniers are the ones who turn their heads, choosing to immerse themselves in the "Back to the Future" trilogy or scrapbooking , turning off the news altogether.
As a journalist, I've long been in Camp A. It's my job to soak up every trace of news, even write bits of it myself sometimes. But last month, I hit a breaking point. I started doing crazy things, like dropping my signature at the end, unconsciously reflecting the Dow line I'd been looking at all day. And when that starts happening, you don't need to be a psychologist to know that too much of a bad thing is no good. But withdrawing completely wasn't an option, either. I didn't want to be disconnected from the world, stuck in a land where I came home to an Uno deck and a TiVo full of "30 Rock" episodes. I still wanted news, just not the kind that made me want to shrivel up and move to Guam.
So I devised what I thought would be a cool scavenger hunt: find the lost graveyard of good news. Was there really no good news out there, or was it all just being covered up? I started slow. At first I found a lot of neutral, debatable stories that could go either way. Obama signing a broad bill to stimulate the economy isn't exactly bad, right? Lots of folks would say it's not good, either. The weather in Florida is warmer than usual right now, which sounds fantastic. Nope, climate scientists would say it's an effect of climate change that will eventually leave Florida under water.
Finally I got lucky. One after another, I came across a handful of news organizations that only do good news. First I found Ode, a monthly magazine with a Web presence that bills itself as for "intelligent optimists" (which, aside from its accuracy, is great marketing). Their business model is built upon something so relevant, so constructive that I couldn't stop reading. There are features and columns from people with a positive take on everything. And I mean everything. They even found something good in the mortgage crisis. Did you know that there’s an organization that matches homeless people with foreclosed homes that are vacant and owned by a bank or the local government? OK, it's not exactly legal in all cases, but the piece notes that "authorities will only intervene if the legal owners complain." And good luck finding the owners when half the nation's mortgages have been sliced and diced and sold off to 10 different entities. In Cleveland, reports Ode, they've come up with a proposal to pay homeless people to fix up foreclosed homes and live in them while they do it. Now don't you feel better? Thanks Ode. That taste of the glass-half-full turned my afternoon hobby into a sort of addiction (Yes, my name is Daniel and I have a problem...).
Psychologically speaking, it turns out that trying to see the positive in such a negative environment isn't that bad, so long as you do for the right reasons and don't become an outright Denier of reality. According to psychologist Steven Hayes, author of the book "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life," it's fine if you're looking at the positive just for the sake of learning something positive. "But if you're only looking for the good in order to keep the wolf at bay, then your mind will constantly be thinking about the wolf, and you don't really escape.
It all comes down to your level of psychological flexibility." Some people need to keep up on the bad news so they feel prepared, or maybe more in control. It can be a way to brace yourself for even worse news, says University of Florida psychologist James Shepperd. But in most cases, the human tendency is to lean toward optimism, in hopes of a better day. People who revel in the negative, even find joy in it—a longing for what a New York Magazine writer called “pessimism porn”—usually have enough distance from effects of bad news to feel personally affected. Once those job loss numbers hit home, it's not as easy to soak up the details of a market drop or feel satisfied because you predicted a market drop and it actually happened.
The best reason to get a healthy dose of good news is that it's good for you. Studies show that a calm and optimistic mind can have health benefits, like lower blood pressure and deeper sleep. Which explains why it's not just me; good news is a pretty hot commodity these days. Of course it's impossible to find a positive spin on every bit of depressing information that comes across on the cable-news crawl. But organizations that dish up unreported or unnoticed positive stories are becoming hot commodities. Ode's circulation (currently just above 100,000) has more than quadrupled in the past year, and Geri Weis-Corbley, who runs a Web site called the Good News Network on a pay-what-you-think-it's-worth model, says people are definitely in the giving mood. NBC recently got in the game when they began asking viewers for positive stories to feature on their evening broadcast, which had, like everything else, been thick with depressing recession stories since last fall. They got an overwhelming response.
People not only wanted to watch good-news reports, they had lots of their own good news to share. I'm even learning to spin bad news into optimistic gold all by myself. Watch this: more people losing their jobs has actually led to a massive increase in stay-at-home parents, which is great for childhood development. Bam.
If there's one big upside to the downturn (and there are plenty, if you look), it's that tough times are provoking a hunger for stories about the ways Americans are helping each other out—which can also inspire us to do more do-gooding on top of the good-news seeking. And maybe we're also feeling a little tougher, a little less easily rattled. The shocking has now become the norm. ("The Dow dropped 300? Didn't it do that last week?"). And that makes it easier to appreciate the good news when we do find it—not a bad habit to get into even when things are booming.