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How to Keep Negative Influences at Bay

Last week I talked about how I’m doing some experiments in boosting happiness. This is based on the premise of Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage, that being happy makes us healthier, more productive, and more successful.

But I also read another of Achor’s books recently, called Big Potential. In it, he acknowledges the fact that bad things do happen, and we’re surrounded by negative influences all the time – which can make it harder to remain positive. So he has a chapter about how to defend against negative influences, listing out a number of strategies. (He even talks about it like it’s Defense Against the Dark Arts – I love the Harry Potterreference!)

And his first suggestion is to build a moat.

Photo by Oleg Chursin on Unsplash

What are your negative influences?

But before we get into defense, it helps to know what kind of negative influences he means.

One of the biggest these days is media. That could be traditional news and print, or social media.

What makes these especially challenging is that they’re everywhere. Unless you’re living under a rock, you likely have some kind of news access, whether it’s the CNN channel, the internet, radio, physical newspapers, or some combination of the above.

And let’s face it. Most of the time the news is about bad things. Earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, wars, stock market crashes, shootings, etc. As Achor points out in Big Potential, “Researchers… have known for some time now that hearing negative news can have an instantaneous effect on your stress level.” (p. 153)

Then there’s all the social media, giving us plenty of opportunity for more negative news. Or even positive news that can be painful if we compare ourselves to it and feel like we don’t measure up.

Why limiting bad news matters

It might not seem like bad news would make much of a difference. And for some people it doesn’t, because this is highly individual.

For example, my dad would feel more stressed by not knowing what’s going on than he is by reading about current events, even if much of it is negative.

Other people, though, find bad news to be toxic. Achor pointed to one study that showed how people who watched “just three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27% more likely to report their day as unhappy six to eight hours later….” (p. 153)

(As a side note, I will say that I find TV news more difficult to handle than print.)

But even worse is the fact that, by and large, we can do absolutely nothing about these bad situations. If we’re halfway around the world, or the problem is entirely out of our hands, we often feel helpless.

This can lead to what’s called “learned helplessness,” with “an unintended consequence: less faith in our ability to tackle not just the challenges in the world but in our own lives as well.” (p. 154)

How this relates to mindful eating

It’s probably not a surprise to know that media of all kinds isn’t super friendly to mindful eating. We live in a diet-centric, weight-focused society. It feels like that’s ever-so-slightly starting to change, that maybe we’ve shifted course by a degree or two. But the reality is, we’re not there yet.

So having lots of exposure to people talking about diets, with images promoting very specific body types and sizes, and negative portrayals of large-bodied people is bound to take a toll.

Plus, if you fall into the pattern of learned helplessness, you may feel less able to make changes in your life – including changes around eating and believing in yourself.

Creating a moat – or compartmentalizing

To help keep the negative influences at bay, Achor suggests “building a moat,” specifically around the news and social media. He advocates not looking at any of that until after breakfast or coffee/tea, and stopping at least half an hour before bed.

But again, you want to approach this in a way that works for you. For instance, I have a different method – I compartmentalize my news consumption. I’ll look at it over breakfast, but only after I’ve gotten up, dressed, fed the cats, etc. So I do have a small buffer.

I also give myself a time limit, and once I reach it, I do something that helps me move past the news. In my case, that’s my practice of meditation, visualization, and music. I may check news again briefly midday, but not after that, and never at night.

Oh, and part of my news strategy is watching late night talk show hosts approach some of these bad things in a humorous way. But again, I do this in the morning, both because I don’t want to pay attention at night, and because I’m asleep anyway.

I’ve also started closing my email tab at 8:30 at night (I almost never check email on my phone, but you may need to put the phone away), and only checking it every hour or two during the day, instead of at any random time when it occurs to me.

Additional strategies

But we can’t ignore everything forever, so Achor suggested some additional things for keeping negative influences at bay.

  • Turning off notifications. A lot of apps and organizations will do what are called “push notifications,” meaning you don’t have to go out and look for information because they’ll push it to you. This sounds good in theory, but in practice, it could mean your device is constantly pinging you with updates. The good news is, you can turn those off, or at least mute your device. I almost always keep my phone on vibrate, and the only notifications I get are for texts and calls. It definitely helps me stay more focused.

  • Reduce noise. It can also help to create space for silence so you can hear yourself think. As a corollary to that, limiting visual stimulation from screens can also be restful. Even if it’s just 5-10 minutes, try not having any noise or visuals in the background. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditating, either. It could be driving in silence, doing dishes for a few minutes of quiet, things like that.

  • Meeting detox. This is more for a work setting, or perhaps volunteer setting, and it only applies if you have some influence over the meeting schedule. But if you can, experiment with cutting out some or all meetings so you can understand which ones are truly necessary. Anything you can remove, restructure, or shorten will almost certainly help.

What I’ve found

It’s been very useful for me personally to have dedicated times to check the news, email, and social media. I hadn’t fully realized how problematic it was to be doing something else and randomly decide to go online for those things when I wanted a break.

But when I did that consistent checking, it didn’t usually seem like a break. Instead, I’d often feel ambushed by things I saw or read, and it not only soured my mood, it also completely derailed my productivity. When it’s planned, though, I can do it in my terms, when I’m mentally prepared for possible negativity, and when I can think of how to move out of it.

In a similar way, I’ve appreciated having more times of quiet and reduced visual noise. In the past – and sometimes still now – I’d have the TV on in the background during the evening. For some reason, I kept telling myself this was helpful, but it really wasn’t. Unless I’m doing something that doesn’t require much mental focus, like maybe format a document, the visual stimulation was a constant distraction. Instead, I’m trying to shift to the approach of watching something mindfully, and then after 15-30 minutes, just turning it off.

I do still like some music at times when I’m working, but I’m also enjoying moments of deeper mindfulness, of having nothing else going on but the one thing I’m doing.

Also, while I would dearly love to do a meeting detox at work, that’s out of my control. But if you can try this, more power to you! And let me know how it goes.

Do you have any of your own strategies for keeping the negative forces contained with a moat, or by compartmentalizing, or something else? I’d love to hear them.

Or maybe one of these ideas appeals to you as something to try. In either case, I hope you’re able to get through your days without letting all your own energy and momentum be moved off-course by outside negativity.

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