What I notice is that people enjoy listening to, reading and watching bad news. It doesn't matter whether or not it is an accurate representation of reality. It doesn't matter that most things work perfectly; bad news passes the time. It's thrilling. An upper. Like caffeine or sugar, or gossip - cheap neurochemical highs we have got used to, and that we miss when we don't have. That's why the prospect of a 'good news' channel or journal makes our hearts secretly sink. What a bore!
This despite the fact that 99.999% of everything runs with the gliding, compact precision of an atomic clock - with a margin of error so tiny that, when something goes wrong, when our hearts so much as skip a quaver, we notice it instantly. In fact, one could remark that it is the only because things are so absurdly, perfectly synchronised and intertwined that we notice anything bad at all. The badness really sticks out, seeing as it appears inside an overwhelming ocean of goodness and efficiency. Then it really looks ugly. And we talk about it. If we put good news on the front cover of a newspaper, by contrast, it would seem redundant. Stating the obvious.
I felt uncomfortable listening to Martha Kearney's dry, hectoring voice but bored and lonely without her
And yet the scientists of optimism, like Professor Martin Seligman, the ‘godfather’ of Positive Psychology, point out that appreciation is one of the fastest short cuts to happiness and wellbeing. And I would agree that it is the most noticeable characteristic of the positive people I have met, this quality of enthusiastic gusto, of gratitude, simple enjoyment of life. The Professor even taught me a simple exercise to stretch this faculty of appreciation - to lie in bed at night and think of all the simple things that went well in one's day. I tried it, and it works. For periods of days and even weeks I am suffused with a sense of the miraculous simplicity of it all. But then one day I forget to do it. A day becomes a week. And then I switch the news on again.
My relationship with the news today is one of neurotic comradeship. This afternoon during lunch I jumped up and down from the table three times to switch off the radio, then switch it on again, because I felt uncomfortable listening to Martha Kearney's dry, hectoring voice while I ate my tuna salad, but also bored and lonely without her. Addicted to the urgency of it all. Interestingly, I often find this impulse dormant when returning from a relaxing holiday or a trip to the countryside - as if my mind when healthy does not need the trashy input of urban worry to keep the adrenaline flowing. Just in the same way that sweeties and chocolate lose their glamour after a really delicious meal.
Someone once told me that drinking coffee was the equivalent of hitting a super-boost button on your adrenal glands. Effectively you are activating the high metabolic response that is normal for a fight or flight situation each time you knock back a latte. The same could be said for other chemical stimulants, and perhaps we could say the same for bad news - it is a quick hook back into the energising urgency of times of war and struggle - as if in this unforgiving climate and competitive world we are addicted to those states of being, and unable to relax in any profound way, for longer than a few hours at a time.
Indeed, peace and quiet can be very intimidating in these circumstances. What the hell are we supposed to do with peace and quiet? If I start relaxing now, what will happen when the whole thing comes down? Better stay alert. Better read the dismal papers they hand out on the tube, together with the newsprint and germs that rub off from all the other addicted souls who have grabbed the papers on their way to work.
But what about simple positivity? What about enjoying life? I realised after living and breathing this topic for more than three years that a lot of this is simply about managing energy. Eating well, sleeping enough; avoiding the obvious and not-so-obvious drains on our spirit. Doing things because I feel like it rather than because I think I should. Avoiding ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ all together. That’s when the real energy comes, I found, the real positivity. Not a flashy optimism but a genuine urge to create and live. That’s the bottom line. Most of the optimists I met had this figured out, they had it down pat; and that’s something worth living for, I decided: this tremendous, undistilled energy, this faith, this appreciation of life just for the sake of it – what the hell! And a total lack of regard for what anyone else really thinks about it – or the ‘bad news’. Least of all the bad news. Life goes on. Way to go!
Laurence Shorter is a writer and comedian. His book The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life
(Canongate Books) is out now