If you don’t want to get wet, you should stay out of the water. That sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s obvious when it comes to the material world—the environment we are in influences our state of being—if it’s raining, and we’re out in it, we’re going to get wet. If it’s sunny and hot, our temperature is going to go up. If it’s dark, we can’t see. Self-evident, right? But what about our emotional and spiritual environment? Are we as aware of its influence over our state of being?
Human beings have developed a rich capacity for conformity. It probably goes back to the early days, when we were working out what we needed to do to survive. A tribe moves into a new territory, finds new sources of food and new dangers, and so develops a pattern of interaction with the environment that works—humans are essentially pragmatists, we do what works. Then, as subsequent generations are born into the tribe, they take on the patterns of survival that are already established. Conformity to the patterns and expectations of the group is a survival technique—nobody from the tribe goes into that cave, because there’s a bear in there. Conformity to this group expectation is a good thing, because of…well, bears.
But as our culture has become increasingly complex, this capacity for conformity has created some negative effects, too. It’s great when conformity helps us survive by efficiently gathering food or avoiding bears, but it’s not so great when conformity leads us to more self-destructive behavior. It’s what Paul was concerned about when he warned the Romans about being conformed to the patterns of the world. Our inclination toward conformity illustrates the power of social influence, both negative and positive. The people we are around—our tribe, so to speak—exert a powerful pull over our behavior. Often, without even being aware of it, we start to become like them. And in our media-saturated world, our tribe ends up including all the talking heads on the news and social media figures we’re following—all of whom have an influence on us.
Dr. Graham Davey of the University of Sussex conducted an experiment in which three groups of people were each shown a 14 minute broadcast that contained either positive, negative, or emotionally neutral news. The folks who watched the negative broadcast reported feeling significantly more anxious than the other groups, and also viewed their personal lives with increased worry. They also had an increased tendency to catastrophize—to imagine horrific outcomes to ordinary problems. Our exposure to the 24 hour news cycle with instant access to nearly every news story has shifted the focus of media from investigating and reporting to interpreting—media is increasingly engaged in telling us what to think about the news, and manufacturing a sense of crisis seems to increase viewership.
Negativity breeds negativity. Whether the source is the media, or a toxic co-worker or friend, or even members of our family, being around negativity is a sure recipe for increasing our anxiety and stress. Negativity creates a dangerous feed-back loop, a downward spiral in which we respond to the anxiety with more anxiety which increases our anxiety. We can’t help but get wet when we’re in the water. In some cases, we cannot avoid the water—we don’t always have the luxury of cutting ourselves off from people. Jobs and families aren’t something we can easily opt out of. But some sources of anxiety can be turned off—no one is compelling us to consume so much media. If it’s simply a matter of logging off or tuning out, maybe our emotional and spiritual health is more important than staying up-to-date on the latest manufactured crisis. Within reason, we can limit our exposure to negative influence.
But since we can never fully protect ourselves from negativity, then it becomes a question of balance. We need to make sure the positive side of our scale isn’t empty, while minimizing the weight we put on the negative side. In the conclusion to his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Almost two thousand years ago, Paul was concerned about the very things that trouble us today—how negative influences can lead us in negative directions. Or, to put it more positively, how reflecting on positive things can have a positive effect. If we can load up our minds with things that are noble and pure, then the anxiety-producing negative influences will have less room.
So, put Paul’s words into practice. Instead of getting caught in a whirlpool of negativity, find what is excellent and praiseworthy and think about that. Listen to some good music instead of talk radio. Watch a beautiful sunset instead of the evening news. Celebrate a special achievement or something as simple as some folded laundry or a clean sink. It’s pretty easy to be negative if all we think about is the negative stuff, and being around negative influences is going to have an impact on our state of being. If we’re in the water, we’re going to get wet. But the same is true for positive influence. So, brothers and sisters, there’s a lot of good in the world, a lot of things that are excellent and praiseworthy—think about such things.