Why do we pay more attention to negative stories than positive ones? This is a question that has bothered me for a few years now. It emanates from my own negative life experiences. I don’t want to think about those things. When someone tells a story about something going wrong that’s where I go though. Relatability is why we stand up and cheer during a positive speech and get sad when something recounts a tragedy that happened to them. It is because stories are relatable that we find them interesting. If we had no reference point stories would be meaningless. Think about a five year old kid at a dinner party. That kid would be bored out of his/her mind. That dinner could include the President of the United States, but to that kid it’s just another person. When we grow older we have the experience to put context to stories. When we put a story in context it effects our emotions. Every story does this. Every speech worth citing does this. So, why does the evening news follow the “if it bleeds it leads” strategy? Because it works. Always has, always will.
Hearing positive stories can get a little annoying too. Think about the last trailer you saw for that uplifting family film coming out around the holidays that shows us that family really is the most important thing. Those films tend to be star-studded disasters. The reason for their failure is not that we hate positive stories, it’s that just like anything else in life too much of a good thing amounts to excess and everyone hates excess. If there’s a guy driving behind you, riding your bumper in a BMW 7-series it’s a little different than a guy behind you in a Dodge Neon. We feel pity for the owner of the Dodge Neon. We may even let him pass because it’s a wonder his vehicle can reach the speed required to pass us and that alone qualifies him for special treatment. Do you ever just want to mess with that BMW driver though? They’re always in such a hurry. I’m sure they don’t want to be late for their court appearance, but we’ve all got places to be and no one likes feeling less important than someone else. This is why passing people on the highway almost always feels like someone thinks they’re better than us. Think about the last time this happened to you. My guess is you felt something when it happened and it probably wasn’t joy unless that person had been on your ass for miles beforehand.
I’ve always been a sucker for negativity. I love it. The reason I love negativity is because it’s much easier to be funny when things aren’t going right for someone else. It’s the ladder effect. The ladder effect is what I call a common class theory that assumes we’re all hanging on to a ladder. We’re all kicking the people below us to try and keep them from rising to our level while trying to fight off the person in front of us because we want to get where they are. That is the ladder effect and there is little in life that you can’t explain using the ladder effect. We spend our whole lives on that damn ladder and the only time we realize – I mean really realize – that it doesn’t matter is when we’re too old to do anything about it. When you’re in your sixties your life has unfolded and you have an identity, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve got people in your life who matter. You can’t really change your identity at sixty. You’ve made your lot in life so to speak. You’ve led a good life or a bad life, right? Actually, I doubt many people would agree with that. Most people would say that they’ve lived a mediocre life. They’d love to tell you about how well intentioned they were, but none of that matters. You are where you are.
The case for being positive is not a strong one. It oftentimes requires being ignorant of the world around you and events that take place in it. No one wants to talk to that guy at the party who’s super excited about life. At least I sure as hell don’t want to talk to that guy. Why don’t we want to talk to that guy? Because he’s probably full of shit. He puts that smile on his face so he can live a façade. But, do you see what I did there? I assumed a negative outcome to what was ostensibly a positive situation. We should all be happy to talk to happy people. Heck, they’d probably make us happier with ourselves if we could just get all that skepticism out of our heads. We just can’t help ourselves though. We tell ourselves that the guy at the party who is so convinced that life is wonderful is himself actually sad in order to make us feel better. That’s a messed up way to live your life, it really is, but I can’t be the only person who thinks like that. I don’t know why I have to think that positive people lead sad lives. I think that ninety-nine percent of people have something that makes them very sad inside because I have things that make me sad inside and I want the world to be like me. It’s what we do. We look at the world and we reshape it so it fits our narrative and you know what? We deal with a lot more negative stuff than we do positive stuff. What if ignorance makes for a happier life though? What if by reducing the amount of time you spend being negative you actually lived a more positive life? These are the questions I’d like you to consider. I think they’re very important because since I’ve stopped caring about things that don’t affect me I’ve become a bit more positive.
How we feel in life matters. Depression – a condition I suffer from – makes me feel bad about myself because of things that have happened in the past. Anxiety – a condition I also suffer from – makes me worry about future events in my life. I can’t win, you see? This kind of thing is much more common than we’d like to think. I’m sure you don’t sit around beating yourself up about mistakes you made and spend the rest of your time worrying about things in the future, but that’s what I do. That’s what makes Anxiety and Depression so dangerous. When you only think about the bad things in life you get sad and sadness doesn’t lead to anywhere that’s worth going to. Someone said something to me a few weeks back that really had an effect on me. She said: “the man you were five years ago would not have the attitude of the man you’ve become.” I took that as a great compliment. I almost cried actually because it meant that I had progressed. Now, I may hear that in another five years in a totally different situation and think something completely differently. After all, maybe I changed for the worse. I don’t like to think like that anymore though. I like to think – because I know that it is true – that everything will eventually be alright. At the end of the day you’ll figure things out. It is the absence of certainty that makes us anxious, but its presence does not make us less so because it is not certainty that we seek, its acceptance.