Consuming Negative News Can Make You Less Effective at Work
Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor & Michelle Gielan
September 2015

We’ve known for some time now that hearing negative news broadcasts can have an immediate effect on your stress level, but new research we just conducted in partnership with Arianna Huffington shows how significant these negative effects can be on our workdays. Just a few minutes spent consuming negative news in the morning can affect the entire emotional trajectory of your day.

In 2012, we conducted a yet-to-be-published preliminary study with Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania where we found that just a few minutes of negative news has a significant effect on mood. This year, we partnered with Arianna Huffington to examine the longer term impact of news on well-being and performance. In this study, 110 participants were blindly placed into one of two conditions: one group watched three minutes of negative news stories before 10 a.m.; the second group watched three minutes of solutions-focused news. This is important: the second group did not watch saccharine stories about cute puppies, rainbows, and waterskiing squirrels (although we love that viral video). The solution-focused news group watched stories of resilience to build the belief that our behavior matters. Two of the videos included inner city kids working hard to be successful in a school competition, and a 70-year-old man who got his GED after failing the test dozens of times. Then, the participants were emailed six hours later and asked to fill out a survey within two hours. This survey contained a battery of positive psychology metrics to gauge things like stress and mood. We were stunned by the results (we even reran the analyses to double-check it) because the effects were much more significant and dramatic than we expected. Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.

In the next phase of our research we will investigate the impact of negative news not just on individuals’ mood but on their performance. We’ll look at the effect of watching negative news on TV while at the gym, as well as the effect of negative news stories on sales and customer service at call centers in the Midwest. Our hypothesis, given substantial evidence that negative moods affect workplace performance, is that it will have a negative impact on performance levels in both cases.

We believe that negative news influences how we approach our work and the challenges we encounter at the office because it shows us a picture of life in which our behavior does not matter. The majority of news stories showcase problems in our world that we can do little or nothing about. We see the market dropping 500 points or ISIS poised to attack, and we feel powerless to change those outcomes. In psychology, believing our behavior is irrelevant in the face of challenges is called “learned helplessness,” which has been connected with low performance and higher likelihood of depression.

There is an equally compelling body of research that links optimism to higher performance. In a classic study in the 1980s, for example, Seligman followed insurance salespeople at Metropolitan Life and found that optimistic salespeople outsold their pessimistic counterparts by 37%. Our own research has shown how quickly positive cues can affect our behavior. In our previous HBR article, Positive Intelligence, we described how a group of hospitals in Louisiana trained 11,000 doctors, nurses and staff to make eye contact and smile at people who walk down the hospital hallways within 10 feet of them. Just six months later, they observed a significant increase in the number of patients visiting the hospital, an increased likelihood of referring that hospital based on the quality of care received, and elevated engagement levels for the employees. A one-second free behavioral change taught people a different social script: we are connected and your positive behavior can have a real impact on others.

We’ve also seen this at play out at our client companies, with the most compelling example coming from Nationwide Insurance. The president of Nationwide Brokerage Solutions, Gary Baker, decided to apply positive psychology research to the company’s workday. In particular, employees begin their days with a “huddle,” where they meet to share good news and rally around colleagues who might need some extra support that day. Those positive starts to the day, among other changes instituted based on positive psychology training at Nationwide, have led to an increase in gross revenues from $600 to $900 million and an application rate 237% higher in just one year. (Some might argue that this is correlation rather than causation.  However,  J.J. Bowman, business development leader at Nationwide, said during an interview that the organic positive changes and optimism felt on the team did drive revenue, as opposed to the other way around.)

So how can you prime yourself for higher levels of performance and feel better during the day without sticking your head in the sand and tuning out the news altogether? Try these three simple, research-supported strategies:

Turn off news alerts: Since the majority of new alerts are by default negative, try turning them off for one week. Shut off push notifications to your phone or email. These alerts pull our attention away from the present moment and can lead to decreased performance, as we are distracted from our work. If there’s anything really important happening, you’ll hear about it soon enough.

Cancel the noise: In Before Happiness, we suggest that in the same way you might cancel the noise on a plane using headphones, you can turn your brain into a noise-canceling machine by practicing meditation. Or, try turning off the radio for the first five minutes of your commute. When you do turn the radio back on, don’t listen to angry talk radio, and mute at least one set of commercials per show. It’s hard to tune into the signal of our own lives when we’re bombarded by the noise that surrounds us.

Change the Ratio: Start your day with empowering, solutions-focused news. Seek out stories on your favorite news site that are transformative, which means that they empower people with actions steps and potential solutions instead of just focusing on the problems. Occasionally, skip clicking on stories that are hypothetical or about tragic one-time situations that you can do nothing about. Find solution-focused news like Huffington Post’s new What’s Working series or CNN’s new impact series. If you don’t like that there’s so much negative news, don’t forget: you vote with your fingers. Every time you click on a story, you’re telling the media you want to be consuming this.

It’s possible to stay informed about the news and remain positive and focused on your own work, but only if you control your news consumption instead of letting it control you.