Who’d a Thunk It: Bad News Makes People Sad

From a Wall Street Journal column by Joe Queenan headlined “Who’d a Thunk It: Bad News Makes People Sad”:

Every once in a while we stumble upon a piece of information that completely changes the way we think about the world. This is what happened to me when I heard about a study conducted at Texas Tech University proving that exposing oneself to a steady diet of bad news can lead to unhappiness and depression and even make a person physically ill.

Needless to say, this revelation totally floored me. Like most people, I’d always assumed that gorging on a steady diet of horrific news about wars, famine, floods and disease was a surefire way to cheer yourself up, that devouring bad news would put a little spring in your step and a song in your heart.

Boy, was I ever wrong! When a group of three academics from the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech examined 1,100 online posts about the public’s relationship to the media, they found that people addicted to checking the news not only suffered from greater stress and anxiety than the rest of us but could even get sick from watching the news. Like, sick to their stomachs.

Yes, what the courageously counterintuitive findings published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Communications seem to be suggesting is that if you keep checking your phone to see how the Chicago Cubs or the New York Jets are doing today, or if you constantly go online to stay abreast of how the polar ice caps are faring, or if you keep turning on the television to find out if the Russians have improved their behavior, it will not make you happier, it will not make you healthier, and it will not make it any easier to get out of bed in the morning.

As Bryan McLaughlin, the associate professor of advertising who co-authored the watershed study, puts it: “Witnessing these events unfold in the news can bring about a constant state of high alert in some people, kicking their surveillance motives into overdrive and making the world seem like a dark and dangerous place.”

A dark and dangerous place? This world? Well, who’d a thunk it?

On a personal note, this iconoclastic study of self-destructive news junkies has single-handedly restored my faith in the social sciences. For the longest time I’ve been one of those mean-spirited curmudgeons—an outcast at life’s rich feast—who looks down his nose at social scientists, ridiculing their work as off-base, poorly reasoned or just plain wrong. Either that or complaining that they are always using complicated charts and graphs to tell us stuff we already know.

Now I’ve done a complete 360 on the profession. These days I can’t wait to see what other jaw-dropping news these hell-for-leather trend spotters will come up with. For example, I am anxiously looking forward to a rigorously scientific, data-driven, peer-reviewed study proving that 30 consecutive days of torrential heat makes people wish that autumn would come early. Of equal interest would be a study proving once and for all that getting fired from your job on Christmas Eve will not make you very popular with your kids.

I’m also looking forward to studies proving that a surprisingly large number of people find leaf blowers annoying, that regularly slamming away a large quantity of devil dogs and triple-bacon cheeseburgers could eventually lead to weight problems, and that getting stuck in traffic jams on I-95 can cause stress. Follow-up studies would check to see if this was also true on Route 405 in Los Angeles and on the George Washington Bridge. The smart money says yes.

Finally, I would love to see a study where researchers prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a good man is hard to find, that rainy days and Mondays always get you down, that people generally don’t miss their water till their well runs dry, and that nothing succeeds like success. Nothing.

Joe Queenan is an American satirist and critic. He is the author of nine books, including Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon and If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. His memoir Closing Time was a 2009 New York Times Notable Book.

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