Most of our recent news is bad: warfare in Ukraine, mass shootings in the U.S., wildfires, floods, tornados, hurricanes, the list seems endless. It helps me to remember that most news has always been bad. We tend to take for granted the generosity, kindness, humor, and loving that people bestow on each other much of the time. Pleasant weather is considered unremarkable. We rarely get headlines or breaking news about the nice people or the nice weather. It’s the bad examples, the exceptions, that get the bulk of the publicity. Through our increasingly interconnected global communications, we can more readily and extensively broadcast the negative aspects of reality. They are not the whole picture.
Last week, after an overload of news about wars and mass shootings and refugees and climate crises and teen anxiety and so on, I was tempted to lapse into “learned helplessness, ” a psychological condition often linked with depression. Problems can seem just too overwhelming to deal with.
Instead, I made a conscious attempt to find some good news. I started with a basic internet search on altruism, broadly defined as actions taken on behalf of others that provide little or no benefit to the altruist. I sat down with my husband to watch a “Kindness 101” segment created by CBS reporter Steve Hartman in 2020, early in the covid pandemic, when he and his children were stuck at home due to school closures and lockdowns. I marveled at the story of Eugene Youn, a 28-year-old adventurer who quit his job and embarked on a long-distance hike to fundraise the $80,000 needed for a set of prosthetic devices to help paraplegic Arthur Renawinsky, a man Youn had yet to meet, walk again.
Later, I honed in on experiments done with very young children to try to find out how altruism develops. Research at the University of Washington showed that toddlers as young as about a year and a half will help an experimenter they believe needs their assistance (https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/02/04/altruistic-babies-study-shows-infants-are-willing-to-give-up-food-help-others/).
Much earlier in my own life, a son who was then studying psychology in college urged me to check out the relatively new field of “positive psychology,” focussing on what’s right with us, rather than just diagnosing and treating what’s wrong. At son Scott’s suggestion, I read a pioneering volume, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. Later I studied some of the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist with the difficult name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read one of his seminal works, Flow. One of my go-to internet sites, TED, has a subset of 15 positive psychology talks featuring experts in the field: https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-ted-talks/. I recommend them.
Even earlier in my life, one summer at a family church camp I enrolled Scott as my assistant in the infant nursery. As the “baby of the family,” our younger son had rarely gotten to care for children even younger than he was. His chance at about age 3 to be a “caring older brother” for a week was one of the highlights of his camp that year. It gave him a sense of power to be able to help care for the infants in the nursery. He was very caring, very careful.
It’s important to me that the war in Ukraine end soon, with as little additional carnage and displacement as possible. It’s important to me that those whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by the war receive humanitarian assistance. It’s important to me that those responsible for conducting the war be held accountable. It’s important to me that we Americans find ways to reduce our epidemic of gun violence. It’s important to me that we take more individual and coilective actions to reduce the future impacts of ongoing climate change and resulting catastrophic weather events. However, if I attempt to “fix” any of these issues by myself, I’m likely to get discouraged. All are big problems.
Instead of the “learned helplessness” of throwing up my hands or getting angry at slow-to-move officialdom or deciding that all these are somebody else’s problems, I can practice learned helpfulness. I can pick and choose where my individual skills and actions would most likely make a positive difference and then use my skills, do the actions.
Like my three-year-old nursery assistant, I can engage in the “learned helpfulness” of altruism. I can make small but positive differences in the lives of those I interact with. I can continue to learn from my mistakes and improve. Learned helpfulness will glean better results than its opposite, I’m sure of it.