Pass the Turkey, Survive the Politics

When you think of the potentially dangerous things you’re exposed to, what comes to mind? The sun? pollution? gun violence? How about Thanksgiving? You know, the day set aside to feast on turkey and dressing leading to a food coma while watching football and browsing the Black Friday teasers as you decide whether to try to talk politics with your crazy Uncle Louie out for his ridiculous political position (because “people like him are what’s wrong with this country!”) or change the topic every time he wants to go there.

In what has become standard pre-Thanksgiving study, there is no shortage of online advice as to how to politically engage/disengage with  your adversarial relatives. Don’t believe me? Check out this Google search:

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With our country more divided than ever, most people will agree on one thing: politics are exhausting. Thanks to an all-you-can-eat social media feed and a 24-hour news cycle, we live in a perpetual cycle of outrage and moral defense that, more often than not, devolves into fruitless acrimony.  This year let me give you a head start and save you a little time.

According to a new study published last month at the University of Nebraska, we’re energy-depleted, sleep-deprived, and physically ill – all because of politics. The research, led by political scientist Kevin Smith, is the first to take a comprehensive look at the physical and emotional costs of paying attention to and participating in political discourse. The findings are bleak, and according to Smith, similar to a public health crisis.

"Quite a few of the numbers jumped out at me," Smith said. "Twenty percent have damaged friendships because of political disagreements. One in five report fatigue. And it's a small (proportion), but 4% of the people in our sample said they've had suicidal thoughts because of politics. That translates into 10 million adults."

Every day the news is filled with stories about crime, terrorism, violence, injustice, drug abuse and oppression. With 24/7 access on every device, it’s impossible to escape the negative news coverage completely. Have you ever wondered how all of that bad news affects your brain? Not your feelings – but literally affects your brain chemistry? Recent studies maintain that heavy news watchers experience a misperception of risk, higher anxiety, increased depression, learned helplessness, and greater activation in the survival brain.

Negativity Bias

We can blame some of it on the media, but there is some neuroscience behind it, too. Namely, a cognitive bias that affects all of us.  Negativity bias refers to the idea that negative thoughts, emotions or social interactions have a greater effect on us than do neutral or positive things.  From an evolutionary standpoint, we have survived and evolved thanks to the negativity bias. It was the brain's built in way to keep us cautious of all the environmental dangers around us. Through evolution, the bias has become so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stages of neural activity.

The negativity bias has been explored in a variety of cognitive functions such as attention, learning, memory, and decision-making. Studies show that in personal relationships, it takes at least five positive interactions to make up for the damage done by one negative exchange. In financial transactions and gambles, the pleasure of gaining a certain amount of money is smaller than the pain of losing the same amount.

Behavioral psychologists estimate that, in judging someone’s character, it would take twenty-five acts of life-saving heroism to make up for one act of murder.

But there is good news! There is a way to change the brain’s negativity bias. Simply, it's just a matter of training our brains for positivity, to actively become more attuned to positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment, pride and love, and to acknowledge these positive findings with more than just a passing glance. Science claims that for a positive experience to get into our long-term memory we should hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds. Less than that, it disappears.

We have the power to choose where we direct our focus. The choice we make will change the brain in a way that keeps the survival brain working overtime with worry, anxiety and stress or wire the thinking brain with optimism, strength and resilience.  Intentionally creating and focusing on things that are emotionally positive actually does sculpt a better brain.

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