Good news is no news

How can we be optimistic when we crave the negative?

I arrived home from ten days in France this summer. Living enfant sauvage-style at a friend's wil derness farm with shapeless days of tranquillity, I'd found the world a pretty good place to be.

That remained until I switched the radio on and heard of a battle raging between Russia and Georgia. Robert Mugabe saying a defiant "no way" to the idea of power-sharing, meaning five million Zimbabweans will likely starve. A major flu epidemic is probable. On TV, a long-faced Mervyn King declared an unimagined low in the economy's growth next year.

Home sweet home, and it's a relentless diet of gloom-mongering and man's inhumanity to man, because this is what the media believe we crave. Or so the Media Research Centre in the United States concluded, analysing news broadcasts by ABC, NBC and CBS over nine months and finding 61 per cent of stories were negative or pessimistic. Just 15 per cent were optimistic.

Blame it on biological determinism, say the neuroscientists. John T Cacioppo of the University of Chicago explains that very early the brain exhibits a "negativity bias", meaning it reacts with far more electrical activity to the stimuli of bad news than to good, and that this is seen at the earliest stages of information processing. Thus our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat than good news.

So, with science putting weight behind the prevailing belief that "good news is no news", what was Achim Kram, himself a media man, doing launching This is a website that determinedly brings us upbeat, life- enhancing news. Logging on brings up cheery, uplifting reports - research proving the virtues, not vices, of the human condition; tales of decency and charity; the best of what business is doing for the world. And so on.

Kram, irrepressibly cheery, believes he is offering a public battered and brutalised by the media's negative bias what they want. So far the site gets 10,000 visits a month, and Kram is unguardedly optimistic in believing that there will be 50,000 people signed up to OptimistWorld by this time next year.

Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks it vital that we learn to see life's positives - it's the way to become healthier. The psychiatrist Dr Toshihiko Maruta, who has done research into pessimism and optimism, says: "How you perceive and interpret what goes on around you affects longevity." Seligman says we can teach ourselves cognitive thinking to counter the "learned helplessness" in the face of adversity that has led to an "epidemic of depression".

Perhaps those of us wishing to feel positive need to find a William Godwin for inspiration. The anarchist philosopher held that calm reason would come to replace all violence and force, and that the mind could eventually make matter subservient to it. Nice idea, that.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food