Healthy visual diet a key to good life

“Just as you are what eat, you are what you see”

with LOGO: Science of Kindness

David Fryburg

As a doctor who specializes in diseases like diabetes, I know a bit about nutrition and metabolism. I really believe in the old saw “You are what you eat.” That is, the amount and types of different foods really affect not only our weight, but our general health.

It is pretty well understood that when our diets are imbalanced, different functions in our bodies may suffer. Taking in too little or too much of something can cause diseases; there are lots of examples that have filled textbooks on the subject.

Years ago when I realized that I was “ingesting” way too much negative news, I began to think about my “visual diet” and wondered what the research literature had to say about it. The analytic side of my brain was fascinated to find out that a few short minutes of exposure to negative news can induce anxiety, stress and symptoms of depression.

Wendy Johnston and Graham Davey showed that a 14-minute video of negative TV news (not even internet-delivered news) can rapidly increase anxiety and sadness.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that beyond induction of anxiety and sadness, watching negative news spilled over to their own personal worries and amplified them. That is, the participants of the study who saw negative news (in contrast to positive or neutral films) expressed greater anxiety related to personal issues.

A preliminary report from Michele Gielan, Shawn Achor, and collaborators at the Huffington Post suggested that the effects of several reports of negative news can last hours into the day for a substantial fraction of people.

Depressing and fear-inducing news can make people feel sad and anxious, which, in turn, can magnify their own problems and can last for quite some time.

The cycle goes like this: Someone gets depressed or stressed by the news. It affects interpersonal behavior, which then reinforces assumptions about the world.

This is huge and consistent with what I was experiencing. It’s important to emphasize, however, that I am not advocating for not reading negative news at all — we need it in moderate doses as there are people who need help and problems that need to be corrected.

How about “positive” news or stories? The few studies that exist suggest that inspiring, positive media have opposite effects from negative media. Algoe and Haidt found that viewing a short (less than four-minute) video of a young man who established a homeless shelter in Philadelphia was specifically able to induce gratitude and love in contrast to videos that inspire admiration or were just funny.

Schnall and colleagues showed volunteers a video from the Oprah Winfrey show in which a musician pays tribute to his former music teacher. The teacher had saved the young musician from a life of gang activity and violence. Seeing that seven-minute video significantly increased the willingness of the participants to volunteer compared to an amusing video.

Other studies of this kind showed that viewing uplifting videos may have positive or desirable effects on sexual prejudice as well as stimulating mothers to nurse.

All of this research led to coining the phrase “Just as you are what you eat, you are what see.” The word “diet,” in fact (which I only recently learned), does not just refer to what food we eat. It comes from the Greek meaning for “way of life” or how one lives his or her life.

With that broadened definition, the word diet had greater meaning as to all of the things that we absorb — food, stories, images, sounds (music) — ­and how they impact us.

As much as we may think that our personalities are stable, just like eating too much food that is bad for us can change our bodies, taking in too many images and stories that are unhealthy can really change how we think and behave.

Next month, we will explore how images of kindness specifically affect people. There is a lot of cool stuff here.

David Fryburg of East Lyme, M.D., is a physician and scientist and the co-founder of Envision Kindness, a nonprofit that promotes kindness, compassion, joy, and love through images. For information, see www.envisionkindness.org

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