Brigid Schulte | Washington Post, August 2015
A great tip for improving your day: Start it by reading ‘transformative’ news, researchers find

The old news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” underlies a belief that sensational, often negative news is what appeals to people, and what sells advertising. In her new book, Broadcasting Happiness, journalist-turned-happiness researcher Michelle Gielan, argues that that belief is inaccurate.

Research shows we’re more likely to remember an ad or want to buy a product when it’s near information that makes us feel engaged and primed for action, Gielan said. Too much negative news is a big reason why people end up feeling hopeless and that their actions don’t matter when it comes to making the world a better place, she argues.

She suggests we should be adding a helping of ‘transformative’ journalism to our daily diet of news because such a balanced media diet more accurately reflect reality and, second, doing so can also shift our mindsets and make us happier. She explains:

Q: Most people don’t think words like ‘happiness’ and ‘news’ belong together. How did you get started studying the two?

Gielan: I became a national anchor at CBS news right as the economic downturn hit. All of a sudden, we were broadcasting emotional stories of people losing their jobs, their homes, their life savings. Our mornings began with helplessness and hopelessness and it was painful to watch.

What I really became interested in, instead of all that negative news, were the stories of people who believe that their behavior matters, who have the ability to move forward and take positive steps in the face of that negativity. I became more interested in solutions-focused stories.

I pitched a series of stories for what I called ‘Happy Week.’ We aimed to take an accurate picture of the psychological fallout of the economic downturn, while giving viewers the tools need to overcome stress and anxiety. Stories of people facing challenges and overcoming them. We got more messages from viewers that week alone than we had the entire [rest of the] year.

I ended up leaving my job there and going to the University of Pennsylvania to study positive psychology. I had an epiphany there: We are all broadcasters. We are all constantly broadcasting information, through verbal and non-verbal communication. And we have the power to shape the messages we choose to broadcast.

In the research we’re doing, we’re showing how positive messages can raise every single business and educational outcome that we know how to track. By making small shifts in the way we communicate, we can raise performance and profits in business. As parents, we’re able to transform the way kids view challenging situations on the playground.

All this research is really exciting. It validates what we intuitively know: When we’re exposed to negative messages, it transforms our view of the world.

Q: What are you finding in your research?

Gielan: My husband and fellow researcher, Shawn Achor and are are doing a study with Arianna Huffington looking at the impact of the news media on our brains.

What we’re finding so far, is that when you’re exposed to just three minutes of negative news first thing in the morning, you have a 27 percent higher likelihood of reporting that you had a bad day six to eight hours later, compared to a group exposed to positive, solutions-focused news. We expected people would report being unhappier for the next few minutes after watching negative news. But we didn’t expect it to have such a lasting effect six to eight hours later.

We found that when people are exposed to transformative news first thing in the morning, they have an 88 percent likelihood of reporting their day is a happy one six to eight hours later. That’s amazing.

Q: What do you mean by “transformative news?”

Gielan: We think we have to have either ‘true’ negative news, or saccharin positive news. But transformative news is a kind of third way. I write about it in The Journalist Manifesto in my book. Transformative news can start in a negative place, but it goes somewhere. It’s an activating, engaging and solutions-focused approach to covering news.

So the way stories are selected can leave people feeling activated, that their behavior matters. The stories engage the public through calls to action, or message boards or conversation and dialogue.

And the stories are solutions –focused, meaning, we’re not just talking about the terrible things the world is facing, we’re talking about what we can do about them: inspiring challenges, people overcome obstacles. Positive news stories about people thriving.

And its not just news. We can take the same approach at work. We did some work with Nationwide Insurance. They changed their narrative at work – the stories they told themselves and each other – to be more solutions focused instead of the usual, ‘If you look like you’re having too much fun, you must not be working hard enough.’  From the highest to the lowest level employee, they were all broadcasting this transformative, positive message.

The CEO first thought this was “fluffy” happiness research. Then he saw they raised their overall revenue from $350 million to more than $1 billion, and saw employee engagement scores improve across the entire company. They saw that happiness leads to sales. Not the other way around.

When we broadcast transformative messages in business and our lives, we build higher levels of optimism, and we’re more likely to see a solution to a challenge, a path forward.

Q: But just looking at recent morning headlines: ISIS. Iran. Another suicide bomber in Kabul. All pretty negative. All happening in the world. How do you suggest covering that?

Gielan: We don’t want to ignore the negative. That’s not the point of transformative journalism. I’m talking about ratio, about rebalancing our approach to news. Talk about what’s working in addition to the challenges we’re facing. We’ll find we’ll create more progress as a result.

The problem is that so many people are being flooded by a high percentage of negative news, that they’re being left with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. That’s not good for progress, because people don’t think they can make a difference.

And sometimes, they don’t engage at all. When I give talks, I often ask how many people have stopped watching the local news. Usually more than half the audience raises their hands.

A lot of people are getting their news online, so they can make choices about what they click. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’ve turned off their news alerts, even though they feel pulled to stay in the know, just to protect their own levels of happiness, and their mindset.

From a business standpoint, there’s very solid research that shows when we shift news coverage, and report on it in a transformative style, that engaging, positive content is actually better for business. The research shows it’s been connected with higher levels of advertising effectiveness, an increased intent to purchase, and higher positive association with the brand, and more shares that attract a bigger and better audience.

One study out of Stanford University found that consumers’ attitude toward the brand was more positive and their intent to purchase higher when the tone of the article next to the ad was positive, rather than negative.

Researchers at the Wharton School of Business analyzed the stories that were most shared on the New York Times website and found that positive content is more viral than negative content, emotional content reaches more people, and people prefer sharing practical, useful content.

So there’s a very good research-based business case for rethinking the balance of news coverage.

Q: For so long, “hard” news has been seen as edgy, important and negative, and feel good feature stories as soft.

Gielan: The duration of news models doesn’t speak to their validity.

We’re going to have to cover stories that we need to know about, even though there’s nothing we can do about them, like ISIS. But we need to have the other stuff that shows a more accurate balance of what’s happening in our world, and can show our behavior matters.

The Harvard researcher Steven Pinker says that this is the safest time in human history when it comes to infectious diseases, violence and war. Yet if you turn on the news, you get a different picture. There’s research that shows that if you watch your local news on a regular basis, you view your city as much more dangerous than it is. That negative news affects your brain, and it affects your behavior.

We’re an overstimulated society these days. That puts the onus on us to make smarter and better choices. The brain can process 40 to 50 bits of information every second. Yet we’re being bombarded with more than 11 million bits of information every second. The choices we make about where to devote our attention – not just with news – predict how we’ll approach our lives.

Q: So what can readers do, to stay informed, understand the world and make good choices about what to pay attention to?

1. We need to Be Picky about sources we go to and stories we read.Even if we have to craft the news broadcast ourselves, it’s important to have a dose of the very important negative stories going on, along with the transformative stories that are solutions-focused. That impacts our belief that our behavior matters, and leaves us feeling more optimistic and activated, that we can make a difference.

Figure out what your cause is, and engage with the world in a way that is productive and informative. Find news stories that people can do something about, or take action on.

2. Be aware of what you broadcast out. We’re all broadcasters. We can shift how other people see the world with the topics we talk about. Do you complain? Gossip? Or do you express gratitude?

There was a great study by researchers at Cornell and the University of California at Facebook. They changed the feeds of 689,000 people to be more positive, or more negative and watched what happened. They found if your feed is positive, you’re more likely to put out positive stuff. If your feed is negative, you’re more likely to put out negative stuff.

3. The Power Lead. There’s an old saying for local news, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ But our research shows you can be much more effective and communicate more powerfully if you start with something positive and meaningful, in conversations, meetings, phone calls. That lifts our mood, and moves the brain in a positive direction, and people respond in kind.

4. Broadcast positivity to your social support networks. Social support, how connected we are to others, is the greatest predictor of our long-term levels of happiness.

So every morning, instead of opening up your inbox and diving in, write a two-minute email praising or thanking someone in your social network – a colleague, friend, an old coach. Not only does it tell your brain what deep levels of social support you have, you’re meaningfully activating other people, letting them know how they’ve made life meaningful and better for you.

Q: What about you? Do you broadcast happiness?

Gielan: When I first come home after work trip, and see my husband and baby, I focus very much on the first few words I say. I offer a power lead.

If I’m not feeling so positive, I’ll send a positive email thanking or praising someone, journal about a meaningful moment, or about three gratitudes, things I’m grateful for, to get my brain in positive place, so I can broadcast happiness to others.

These things sound like tips or tricks, but they’re the building blocks of how the brain works, and how to create higher levels of optimism and resilience. It’s harder when you know all that, and you catch yourself not doing it! But I’ve worked a lot to get back on track quickly.