Positivity, with Seán Dagan Wood

January 22, 2020 Kim Forrester Season 5 Episode 1
Positivity, with Seán Dagan Wood
Positivity, with Seán Dagan Wood
Jan 22, 2020 Season 5 Episode 1
Kim Forrester

Seán Dagan Wood is the publisher at Positive News magazine, and the co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project, which trains journalists to cover positive stories in a rigorous way. On this episode of Eudaemonia, Kim Forrester talks to Seán about the power of positivity, and discusses the ways we can balance our information diet, and consciously amplify all that is constructive, inspiring and uplifting in the world.

Show Notes Transcript

Seán Dagan Wood is the publisher at Positive News magazine, and the co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project, which trains journalists to cover positive stories in a rigorous way. On this episode of Eudaemonia, Kim Forrester talks to Seán about the power of positivity, and discusses the ways we can balance our information diet, and consciously amplify all that is constructive, inspiring and uplifting in the world.

Kim Forrester:   0:00
According to researchers, our brains are literally wired to notice negativity. And if we're not careful this 'negativity bias', as it's called, can compel us to overlook or underplay the many positive things going on in our lives and in our world.  Welcome to the Eudaemonia podcast. I'm Kim Forrester and, today, it's time to accentuate the positive.

Intro:   0:28
Welcome to Eudaemonia,  the podcast that is all about flourishing. Plug in, relax and get ready for the goodness as we explore the traits and practises that can help you thrive in life - with your host, Kim Forrester

Kim Forrester:   0:42
Sean Dagan Wood is the publisher at Positive News, the magazine for good journalism, about the good things that are happening in the world. Formerly a journalist and editor, he is also co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project, which trains journalists to cover positive stories in a rigorous way. Sean speaks internationally on media innovation and related subjects, and he is also interested in how business can be a force for good. In 2015, he led a crowd-funded community share offer that transformed Positive News into a cooperative, owned by its readers worldwide. It's my absolute pleasure to be connecting with Sean today to talk about the power of positivity and to discuss the ways that we can enhance our lives by consciously amplifying all that is constructive, inspiring and uplifting.  

Kim Forrester:   1:43
Sean Dagan Wood. It's such a delight to have you here on the Eudaemonia podcast. You're up in the highlands of Scotland today. How are you?  

Seán Dagan Wood:   1:52
I'm fantastic, thank you.  

Kim Forrester:   1:53
I imagine that the weather is quite different where you are to where it is here, in Singapore.

Seán Dagan Wood:   1:58
Yeah. It was a couple of degrees under last night. So pretty cold.

Kim Forrester:   2:03
Sean, I'm really excited about having you on the show, because Eudaemonia is literally about positivity, and all the positive traits and characteristics that we perhaps overlook our lives. And you've spent the last few years - at least - looking into positivity and amplifying it throughout the world. So let's get straight into it: you talk about the power of the lens through which we view the world. As both an editor and journalist, and a champion of positivity, what's your view on today's information diet? Do you feel that we are being shown a true reflection of the state of the world when we look at the news or our social media feed?

Seán Dagan Wood:   2:43
I think a lot of us find that we're overwhelmed with information. And, you know, it's pretty clear that we're not lacking information at a time when we have the digital tools to send information around the world in an instant. Whereas, you know, many years ago, information was more precious in the sense that we couldn't access it so easily, and the news was so vital in getting information from one place to another to inform people about important changes happening. But obviously it's very different now. So I think it's really important that we're aware of our information diets and how they're affecting us. So as well as being overwhelmed with information - largely through the news -  I also think there's a key issue in that the news has a negativity bias. So by that, I mean (it's kind of obvious to a lot of people, I think) but the news tends to select stories that are about what's going wrong, and basically focus on humanity at its worst. And it frames stories with a focus on the negative aspects of the story. So I don't think that's a true reflection of the world, at all.  And I think most people find that, you know, in our everyday lives. Although we face, you know, suffering, and challenges, and difficulties to different degrees, most people also experience opportunities, and achievements, and positive aspects of their lives. So I think the news narrative is out of sync with reality. And, for me, what's crucial about that is it's missing the progress that's happening, which I believe are really important stories. You know, stories of solutions to social and environmental challenges and where humanity is progressing. That's important information that we need.

Kim Forrester:   4:28
So let's talk about that negativity bias, because I think that it's influencing people in profound ways, but also unconsciously; in ways that were not even aware of. Do you feel that our information diet is purposefully negative? Like, what's going on behind the scenes there? Is it purposeful, or is it accidental - this negativity bias that we have in the media?

Seán Dagan Wood:   4:52
It's an interesting question and, for me, I think it's largely accidental. I know some people think there's a grand conspiracy to control everyone through fear, and that may be the case. But I think that the key thing that's happened here ... well there's a couple of things I'd like to mention. Firstly, is that biologically we're hardwired to respond to threats. You know, this goes back, obviously, to when we were living in caves and needed to be very agile in response to the incoming animal that was going to eat us. So if we have information about a potential threat to us, then our focus narrows on it. We have a biological response to that - you know, the fight or flight response to stress in our bodies - and that's a very powerful effect. So whether intentionally or by accident, the news has worked out that fear grabs attention. And obviously the news wants to grab our attention because, you know, back in the day it wanted to shift newspapers and now, more often, it wants clicks. Because that pleases the advertisers who are funding their business. And I think that's another key aspect of this - that the commercial priority of news organisations historically has meant that, above all, they've wanted  to grab as much attention as possible. And this has led to the increased negativity and increased sensationalisation of stories - so that it can grab more attention than a competitor. So I think the kind of 'shift' toward increased negativity is almost a natural response to that - the way that we are wired biologically, and that commercial context. But there's also more positive side to this in that, the idea of what it is to be a journalist - to be a good journalist - and the practise of good journalism became shaped around the idea of being society's watchdog. And that's a good thing, you know? So the growth of investigative journalism, a few decades ago, for example. That, you know, being a prize-winning, top journalist became being about uncovering corruption and scandal; holding power to account. And as I say, that's, you know, that's a really good thing. We need that in society. But the problem is, it's gone so far towards negativity that, now, I think the news industry is blind to its own bias towards negativity, and is missing so many important stories of progress.

Kim Forrester:   7:22
Yeah. What I can see you saying there is, what's happened is that we've monetised negativity.

Seán Dagan Wood:   7:28
Yeah, that's one way to put it. Yeah.

Kim Forrester:   7:30
And then, of course, we're playing with the fact that the people behind the news desks, or at the editor's desks, are human beings. And so they are fascinated, obviously - biologically, neurologically - by the more negative aspects, the more negative stories that are coming through. We are more fascinated by it. We click more on those stories and it becomes this vicious cycle. Do you feel, then, that it is possible for us to consciously start reversing that trend? We as individuals, can we -and we'll talk about this later in the show - but do you feel that we can choose, in the moment, to start clicking only on positive stories, and to start reversing that cycle?

Seán Dagan Wood:   8:11
Yeah, definitely. I think once we become more conscious of the impact that the news - or our information diet more broadly - is having on us, then we can recognise that we have that choice of where we put our focus and our attention. Which is something that I came to realise and I think is a really powerful, powerful thing for us to do as human beings. And personally, I've found recognising that to be a really powerful factor in being able to shift my life in the direction I want.

Kim Forrester:   8:45
You talk about the impact of all this negativity. I know you've studied this. You've study the science, the research behind it. Tell me, Sean, how can a diet of bad news affect us psychologically? So what does the science say about this?

Seán Dagan Wood:   8:59
Well, there's decades of research now that shows that excessive negative news can lead to a whole range of mental health impacts, such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, mistrust and fear of others, and also news addictions. So anyone who's experienced anxiety might know that there's often a compulsion to find out more about the thing that we're worried about. And, of course, reading more and more negative news to try and feel informed, so that you're aware of what the threats out there are, can just increase that. The impact of that negativity creates a downward spiral. And people are susceptible to the impacts of negative news to different degrees. But clearly, it's affecting a lot of people to some degree. Because we know, for example, the Reuters Institute published some research in the summer that showed that around 1/3 of people now actively avoid the news, and the main reason is because of the negative effect it has on their mood. And this, number is increasing.  So, yeah, I think ... what I feel it does is, really, that the news creates this kind of background stress in many people's lives all the time. And I think the ripple effects of that are quite significant in society. So, for example, some research in the UK, found the perception of social problems such as unemployment, teenage pregnancy, levels of crime - these kind of things - we consistently overestimate the levels of these problems. And I think that's down to their prominence in the news. It creates a picture that distorts reality because it exaggerates these negative issues. And of course, that's not to say we shouldn't be informed about them. We should, but we need balance. 

Kim Forrester:   10:41
So let's talk about the contrast here. What does research tell us about the effects of positivity? If we start consuming a diet of positive news and positive information, does that have an impact on our well-being?

Seán Dagan Wood:   10:53
Yes, it does. So some research on our own audience found that positive news stories boost people's mood and creates hope and optimism. And interestingly, as well, some research from University of Texas looked at a traditional problem-focused news story and then created the same story but with some additional information about a potential solution to that problem. And it found that people were more engaged in that story, remembered more information about it, and were more likely to share it. So I think there's a range of positive impacts when we take this more positive lens, on our well-being. But, beyond that, what I think is really crucial that we found with the research on our audience, is how it helps people to feel that they have agency in the world; that they can engage in society.  Because that's the crucial issue for me, with the negativity bias of the media, is how disempowering is for people. Because it can lead to people switching off; disengaging; feeling like the world is terrible and only getting worse and nothing can be done. And for me, that's a real waste of human potential. So with a more positive approach - when we look at a problem through the lens of what's being done about that problem - not only do we have a positive impact on people's well-being, but people feel that their choices can matter. They can see pathways for change and they're helped to feel that 'Well, maybe I could make a difference. Maybe I can take a choice as a positive impact - whether that's something small in my own life, or something larger through my work or my community'. And that's what really excites me about taking a positive approach in the media, is because we can then empower people to actually address these problems that we hear about so much in the rest of the news.

Kim Forrester:   12:35
I love that. So what you're saying is positivity is not just about seeing everything through rose coloured glasses. It could be a simple as seeing a challenge or a problem, and understanding that we are empowered to change that in some way; to find a solution; to be part of the solution to that problem. That, for you is obviously just as much about positivity as having a good news story.

Seán Dagan Wood:   12:57
Yes, that's right. Yeah. And that's what really drives me about the work I do, because I felt that, myself, when I started working with this kind of journalism: how it empowered me. So what excited me about it is that, if we can change that overall narrative that the media creates about how our world is, and what's important, and what the possibilities are - if we can have a more constructive narrative that connects people rather than divides people, that inspires people rather than triggering fear - then I believe that we could, you know, that we can bring out more of our potential to create thriving, peaceful societies where we can address environmental challenges and beyond.

Kim Forrester:   13:37
That's really powerful. I believe it was you in one of your speeches that I saw online, you spoke about 'learned helplessness'. And so what you're saying, perhaps, is that we feel so helpless when we read the news. It's too big. We can't change it. We're doomed. It's overwhelming. Whereas, if we can become more empowered, there's positivity in that sense of agency that you were talking about. Let's get to you for a moment, Sean, and I want to talk about your personal experience. In your twenties, you found yourself - like many human beings - dealing with overwhelming anxiety and panic attacks. Tell me more about that experience and what it was like for you in those days.

Seán Dagan Wood:   14:18
Yeah, so that was a time when I was feeling like I didn't have a lot of control over my life. I didn't understand the experience of anxiety I was having and these periods of panic, and I didn't feel empowered. And I felt, yeah, generally more afraid of the world than willing to engage with the world. So at the time, you know, in order to heal from that, there were various things in my life that helped with that - whether it be family or cognitive behavioural therapy, for example. And what was really interesting about the time is, when I started working in Positive News and how that helped me understand - or at the same time I was learning to understand - how the stories that I was telling myself, about myself and about the world in which I lived, were affecting my experience of reality. So if I was telling myself that the world is a terrible place and that bad things are likely to happen, to put it in simplistic terms, or that I can't cope, or I can't deal with those, or I can't get through the challenges that I'm experiencing, then that would obviously leave me feeling disempowered, and depressed, and anxious. And so I started challenging those stories in my own mind that were affecting my, you know, my emotional state, my physical state. Obviously, there's a link between our thoughts and our feelings and perceptions. And I realised then, when I started working in journalism, that that experience on the personal level could be scaled up to a collective level; that if, collectively, we're telling ourselves a story about the world that creates anxiety - that focuses on the worst - then that's going to be really disempowering for us. So I thought, OK, if I'm able to start moving beyond my anxiety, - which I did, coming to understand the process that was leading to panic attacks and dealing with that, and realising, as part of that process, how I could change my perspective on myself and on the world - that could happen collectively in a way that could actually bring out the best of us, as a society, as well. So I think that helped drive my belief in the potential of positive news stories.

Kim Forrester:   0:00
So since you started working at Positive News - and then eventually you took over it and you turned it into a social enterprise - during those years, how has your view of the world changed?

Seán Dagan Wood:   16:40
Well, I think I'd probably say it has broadened. I mean, I think I was kind of equally aware of the problems that society was facing. I was always passionate about wanting to contribute towards positive social and environmental change - I've always been particularly concerned about the climate crisis, for example - but I was less informed about the progress that was happening, for sure. So my world view's broadened, and that's also affected my view of other people, I think, as well. So my general view is less fear-based and it's much more focused on the best in everyone and the potential of life. But I think the important thing in these kind of conversations, which can be difficult is always to, I guess, point out the complexity which we all experience in life. Life is really complex and there's a lot of paradox. And I think a key paradox relevant to this conversation is that the world is a lot better than it used to be, in my eyes.  We've made huge progress. You can look at so many long-term trends like declining extreme poverty, declining infant mortality rates, sanitisation, access to clean water ...  the list goes on and on ... that so many more people in the world are now healthier, wealthier, more prosperous and living longer than ever before. But, at the same time, you could say the world is also, you know ... things are really bad as well. Obviously there's huge unprecedented challenges we face, like the climate crisis.

:   18:19

Kim Forrester:   18:19
Yes, I was thinking as people have become more prosperous and healthier, perhaps the environment has not.

Seán Dagan Wood:   18:25
Yeah, that's very true. And then, you know, there's so many different levels to this. You could look at the mental health crisis, and maybe how material prosperity has increased but we may be lacking in other, more deeper levels. You know, even as I'm talking and making generalisations, and as I say that, life is just so complex. But I think what my kind of point is that, since integrating a more constructive attitude and perspective in my own life, I'm able to understand and appreciate that complexity more; to hold it all in my awareness better rather than reacting in fear, in some way, to the excess of negativity.  And at the same time, not just siloing myself into a blind kind of positive thinking. I think, to me, it's that balance that's really important, and you need to be able to see the progress that's happening and be able to have positive elements in - well, for me - in my world view, in order to keep that balance.

Kim Forrester:   19:24
What stood out for me, Sean, as I was researching for this show is just how much you say your perspective of yourself has changed. It's not so much that - or it's not just that - your perspective of the world has become broadened, and perhaps you're able to see the solutions and the positive aspects of the world. But you say that actually helped you change your perspective of yourself. How so?

Seán Dagan Wood:   19:47
I think it's partly to do with my  journey in my career at Positive News, in that I took on a lot of responsibility very quickly when I got involved. I built up a strong relationship with Positive News' founder before she passed responsibility for the organisation over to me, in 2012. I think at that point, essentially - you know I was in my early twenties as well - life was asking me to take a leap into that responsibility and that, which I didn't expect to happen. And so to rise to that opportunity and challenge, I had to shift things in myself. And what helped with that was the nature of the work I was doing, because I was dealing with these stories where I was seeing the amazing things that other people were doing. You know, whether it be an entrepreneur, or a community group, or the different ways that people were responding to the challenges they faced, and I guess the inspiration and the positivity of the material I was working with was contagious. So I was going through this experience. Like, parallel to dealing with these stories, I was - as I mentioned before - going through the experience of learning how to empower myself through shifting my perspective and also through practically doing stuff, and rising to the challenge of taking this organisation forward. And I think that the reason, I guess, that I mention this is because I think it's really crucial to our future - it's the individual's need to be empowered as part of a thriving society. So, you know, the answers to the challenges we're facing now aren't going to come from so-called leaders in politics, getting everything done. We need a complex web of individuals, communities, organisations, institutions where people are empowered to, you know, give whatever gift they have to the world; use the best of their abilities and their circumstances. So that, yeah, I think that it's important for people to access that perspective.

Kim Forrester:   21:55
Let's continue with that conversation, because I love that. You're talking there about what we, as individuals and a collective, can do to perhaps implement solutions to the world's challenges. And for me, I certainly believe that we as individuals can change social paradigms, and can change social behaviours and habits. You talk about the ways that journalists, for instance, can be more focused on growth and solutions in these stories, rather than victimhood. What ways do you feel that we, as individuals, can sort of implement these more solution-focused methods and practises into our own lives? And do you think it can make a difference?

Seán Dagan Wood:   22:31
Yeah, it's a good question. It's an interesting way to look at it. What can you learn from journalists? But yeah, I think we can. So there's two key things that journalists do that create the news agenda: it's about the selection of information and then how that information is framed. So the selection being the stories we choose - and that will suggest to us what it is we think about. And then, the framing; the particular angle on that story - what was pulled out that's important - that suggests to us how we think about it. So this is something that we can think about for ourselves in the way that we're looking at the world, engaging with the world. What information are we selecting? What is it that we're focusing on in our lives, in other words? And then, how we're framing it; how we're thinking about it. So we have a choice there. We can choose where we put our focus, and then we can also choose a perspective. So, you know, we could choose to focus on something that's particularly difficult for us, or we could choose to focus on something where we feel we can grow, and that might have a different impact on us. I think the key thing about this is really about awareness. In journalism, for when we're publishing positive stories at Positive News, it's not about ignoring the negative or what's going wrong. But it's about showing that 'fuller picture' and focusing on what's being done about that problem, as I mentioned before. And that's why we call it 'constructive journalism'. So it's that constructive attitude. And that's something that I've actively tried to develop in myself - a solution focused approach. And l find that makes a massive difference to my life, you know, in that it makes me better able to deal with challenges which may still be very painful, may still be very difficult. And sometimes there is no solution. And sometimes the first step, as it can be when we're covering a negative story in journalism, is just acknowledging the problem. But it's remembering that we have the power to then have that solution-focused response. We can still acknowledge the problem while looking at 'What's the step I can take to move forward?'

Kim Forrester:   24:44
You mentioned this very early on in the conversation there about the - I believe it was Texas - you were saying where they found that if they placed a solution or something positive within the story, that it could actually help people absorb it with a little less negativity. And what I hear you saying there, Sean, is that's something that we can actually practise in our own lives. So we can hear the information, we can see the challenges, we can accept those as being real. But we don't necessarily then have to see ourselves as a victim. We can then look for the solutions; we can look for the ways that we can engage in positive ways to perhaps make a change to that solution. Is that ... would you agree with that?

Seán Dagan Wood:   25:25
Yeah, I would agree with that. And that's where I think positive news stories are really important, because that's quite hard to do, sometimes, on our own, when we're overwhelmed with information about the problem. Whereas I think what positive news stories can do for us as a society, is to help us connect into that bigger web of progress that's happening - of how people are responding to problems - which will help us feel more empowered. So then, yeah, we can look at a problem and think, 'OK, this is a real challenge', but we can ask the question, 'What's being done about it?' And then we can see the way that people are responding which, as I mentioned, can help us feel more empowered.

Kim Forrester:   26:02
Okay, we've spoken a lot about engaging in more positive news, more positive information. Do you feel it's equally as important to seek out and engage with positive people?

Seán Dagan Wood:   26:13
Yeah, I do. I personally certainly feel that, you know, people's attitudes, perspective, and their way of being is contagious. In fact, I remember hearing someone a couple of weeks ago talk about this at a conference. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name, but he was an expert in well-being. And he'd been looking into this effect, and he gave the example - the really great example - of how children are often very naturally joyful and how contagious that is. And I think it's something we've all experienced -  how, you know, someone's mood can change a room. So, yeah, I mean, I certainly wouldn't ever want to be dismissive of people who were, you know, suffering, for example, and their mood reflects that. But I think when it comes to attitude, that could be something that's quite palpable. And, personally, I do try to choose to engage with people that share that constructive attitude, whilst obviously being as compassionate as possible to people who don't feel able to do that.

Kim Forrester:   27:14
I think it's about reframing what we term a 'positive person' to be. We're all going to be sad at times; we're going to be angry. We're going to feel helpless at times. Would you agree that maybe 'positive people', as you were saying, are those who are less likely to sit in that sense of victimhood, and are more constructive about their own lives and the way they can engage with the world?

Seán Dagan Wood:   27:36
Yeah, I would say, I guess it's people who are fortunate enough to have been able to realise - through their life experience and whatever opportunity has helped them - to realise that they do have that power to choose how they frame their own experience in their own mind. Which can be a very difficult thing. And it's something that I think we can all help each other with, and something that the news doesn't help us with. And the news could do a lot better in terms of creating a space where we can reframe things more easily. 

Kim Forrester:   28:06
Sean, you've been so gracious with your time today. I've got one final question and it's a question I ask every guest on the Eudaemonia podcast. Can you recommend to my listeners a 'morning reminder'. This may be a ritual, or practise, or an affirmation - something that can help my listeners generate a more positive lens of the world and engage in more constructive ways with themselves and the world around them.

Seán Dagan Wood:   28:32
I would encourage people to be - as the listeners may be already - to be mindful of their news consumption. So, personally for me, I try to avoid reading the news very first thing in the morning because it can be so impactful on my mood to start the day. And I think it's a tendency. It's easy to look at the news first thing and last thing in a day, which I don't think's a great idea. So what I do, personally, is I actually - for the main news app I use, for the kind of mainstream news - I set a time limit on my phone, so it gives me a reminder when I've done certain amount of time. I think it's five minutes. It's quite brief.  And so I just try and pick out the keys stories that I most need to be aware of, but not get too drawn into the detail of what's actually quite a narrow, negative news agenda. And then I actively look for positive stories, elsewhere. So I think, it's just remembering that the news has a narrow focus and it's focused on the negative. And so I'm not encouraging people to ignore problems. But I'm encouraging people to step back a little and see what's going on there. And then more consciously choose your media diet and put boundaries on it.

Kim Forrester:   29:43
Well, I certainly encourage my listeners to broaden their information diet by getting a hold of your magazine, Positive News. Tell me how people can find out more about that.

Seán Dagan Wood:   29:54
Well, our website is so you can read a lot of our content there, online. And I would really encourage you to subscribe to the print magazine, which can be delivered internationally. So it's a quarterly, beautifully-designed magazine in print, which rounds up all the most exciting, important positive stories each quarter. And, we're a not for profit organisation - actually a cooperative, owned by our readers around the world - so by subscribing to the print magazine, you'll be providing key support for Positive News and the work we do promoting inspiring journalism. So there's no media mogul syphoning off the profits or pushing in any kind of agenda of their own.

Kim Forrester:   30:40
Sean, it really is just a big bundle of positivity and something we need more of in this world. So thank you so very much for all that you do in that space.

Seán Dagan Wood:   30:47
You're welcome. It's been great to talk to you, Kim.

Kim Forrester:   30:50
Thanks so much. Take care.  

Kim Forrester:   30:52
As the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them." You've been listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. If you'd like to learn more about how to live a truly flourishing life, please subscribe and check out for more inspiring episodes. I'm Kim Forrester. Until next time be well, be kind to yourself, and remember to accentuate the positive.