Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

When Kim and I go to bed each night, we spend time casually browsing Reddit on our iPads. It’s fun. Mostly.

She and I enjoy sharing funny animal videos with each other (from subreddits like /r/animalsbeinggenisuses, /r/happycowgifs, and /r/petthedamndog). Kim dives deep into /r/mapporn and /r/documentaries. I read about comics and computer games and financial independence.

But here’s the thing. After browsing Reddit for thirty minutes or an hour, I’m left feeling unsatisfied. In fact, I’m often in a bad mood. After browsing Reddit, I have a negative attitude. My view of the world has deteriorated. Why? Because for all the fun and interesting things on Reddit, it’s also filled with a bunch of crap.

You see, I also subscribe to /r/idiotsincars and /r/publicfreakout and /r/choosingbeggars — and dozens more like these. These subreddits highlight the worst in human behavior. And while viewing one or two posts from forums like these can be entertaining and/or interesting, consuming mass quantities of this stuff leaves me feeling dirty. (Plus, there’s the Reddit comments which tend to be juvenile, dogmatic, and myopic. Reddit comments are so bad that Kim refuses to read them.)

It’s taken a while, but I’ve come to believe that Reddit — or the way that I use Reddit, anyhow — is a net negative in my life. It causes more harm than good.

I’ve been thinking about his concept a lot lately. Behind the scenes, I’ve been making many small, subtle changes to my environment and daily routine. My aim is to decrease my depression and anxiety by removing people, things, and experiences that are net negatives and replacing them with people, things, and experiences that are net positives.

What Do I Mean by “Net Negative”?

What do I mean by this? What do I mean by “net negative” and “net positive”?

These concepts are simple to understand when we’re talking about things are easily quantifiable. In sports, for instance, you can crunch numbers to determine whether an individual player helps or hurts her team when she’s on the field. In personal finance, you can track stats in order to see which habits increase your net worth and which cause it to drop. The same is true with fitness or any other activity that can be measured.

But how do you measure Reddit? How can I quantify its effect on my life?

The fundamental problem, of course, is that in most cases we don’t have a way to quantify this stuff. How can you tell whether a hobby is a net negative or a net positive? How do you quantify the good and the bad of social media? Of computer games? Of your career? Of your relationships?

You can’t.

This isn’t a scientific process with actual measurable metrics. When evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of the things in your life, you have to use intuition. You have to guess.

Still, I think most of the time — if we’re honest with ourselves — we can tell whether something is helping or hindering us. Does browsing Reddit make me a better person? Does it make me feel better? Does it keep me better informed? No, not really. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. I may not be able to prove this with numbers (or any other objective measure) but I can sense it. So can you.

Nothing is All Good or All Bad

There’s another problem that arises when trying to evaluate whether something is harmful or beneficial to your well-being. Few things are 100% good or 100% bad. Most have a mix of positive and negative elements.

  • Yes, owning a dog is a pain in the ass — but having a canine companion also brings a great deal of joy. For me, the pros outweigh the cons.
  • Watching television is a mindless passive activity. It can be a complete waste of time. That said, TV can also be an entertaining escape — or a great source of information. Plus, TV can provide a shared experience that sparks conversation with family and friends.
  • Even politicians that I find frustrating aren’t completely misguided; even the worst elected official does some good. (And conversely, even the best representative does things I disagree with.)

As I said, few things are 100% good or 100% bad.

If we could quantify the people and objects and experiences in your life, most would probably have “scores” close to zero — close to “break even” — but a few of these scores would be extremely positive or extremely negative.

Looking at my life, some of my habits and possessions are clearly detrimental. Others are clearly beneficial. In many cases, it’s easy to identify what should stay and what should go. Candy and potato chips? Talk radio? News media? These are all clearly negative and have no place in my life. Exercise? Time with friends? Reading? The music of Taylor Swift? These are all clearly positive and I want more of them.

The challenge comes when something is a net negative — but it also comes with some positive aspect that fills a fundamental need. In cases like this, it’s tough to figure out what to do.

Alcohol as Net Negative

Take alcohol, for instance.

There is no doubt that alcohol relaxes me. By two o’clock every afternoon, I’ve become tense and anxious. I can eliminate this anxiety by drinking a couple of beers. For a long time, that’s what I did. That’s a positive side of consuming beer.

But while drinking alcohol provides some small short-term benefits, the long-term downsides have become too great for me.

Alcohol quells the immediate anxiety…but induces more long-term generalized anxiety. It makes me fat. It interferes with my ability to get things done. It damages my liver. And so on.

Ultimately, I decided that if I were to quantify alcohol’s effects on my life, the negatives would far outweigh the positives, so I’ve given it up for now. (I stopped drinking on Independence Day and my goal is to go a year without alcohol. Or a year drinking as little of the stuff as possible.)

But what about pot? Marijuana is legal here in Oregon. During my fifty years on Earth, I’ve had some exposure to pot but not a lot. (Mostly I’ve used it as a sleep aid.) Over the past two months, though, I’ve been experimenting with it as a replacement for alcohol, and I can see that it does offer some advantages. But I’ve come to believe that pot too is a net negative for me.

No, pot doesn’t contain calories. No, it doesn’t give me a hangover the next day. No, it doesn’t cost an arm an a leg. But pot does make me dumb — both in the present and the future. It saps my motivation. And there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground with it. I can drink a couple of beers and enjoy a gentle, pleasant buzz. When I consume pot, it’s all or nothing and I don’t like that.

Worse, sometimes pot makes me paranoid. When that happens, it sucks. Plus, just as alcohol helps with short-term anxiety while exacerbating long-term anxiety, pot seems to help with short-term depression while increasing long-term depression. Yikes!

So, I think my experiment with marijuana has nearly run its course. Next, I’m going to play with mindfulness and meditation as a way to manage depression and anxiety.

Re-Thinking Social Media

It’s tougher to evaluate things like social media.

For more than a decade now, I’ve been active on Facebook. I like what Facebook used to be. It was a way for me to stay connected with my friends, to see updates on their kids and pets and travel and careers. More to the point, it was (and is) a way for me to share what’s going on in my life. (The real reason my personal blog died? Facebook. I use my Facebook feed as a personal blog.)

Over the past five years, however, the platform has changed. People increasingly use Facebook as a place to espouse their political beliefs. (Why? Why? Why? Why? Has anyone ever been swayed by a political post on Facebook? Ever?) Ads on the platform are invasive and annoying. And the Facebook algorithms seem hell-bent on showing me posts from the same people over and over and over again. (YouTube does the same thing and it drives me nuts.)

Just as I’m considering altering my relationship with Reddit and with alcohol, I’m also considering a change to how I use Facebook because more and more, I feel like it’s a net negative in my life. And the more time that passes, the greater a net negative Facebook becomes.

To me, it’s easier to evaluate Twitter. Twitter is a huge net negative. There’s no room for nuance on Twitter. There’s too much noise. The platform is filled with all of the bad things about social media (brigading, bullying, jumping to conclusions, etc.) and none of the good things. So, I mostly avoid the place.

For somebody like me, someone who believes that people are generally good and that the world is a complicated place filled with nuance, social media is deeply problematic. It’s not inherently bad — I can envision useful, productive social-media platforms — but the way the major players have opted to implement their functionality fosters groupthink, negativity, and the spread of misinformation.

There’s another huge problem with social media, including Reddit. It’s killing my attention span. Pre-Facebook — meaning before I joined in October 2007 — I engaged in a lot of activities that required deep focus. I read novels and non-fiction for pleasure. I wrote long articles. I created websites and even wrote rudimentary computer programs to improve my life.

Today, my attention span is practically zero. It’s tough for me to sit through a 23-minute sitcom let alone an entire movie. I can muster the focus to read a blog post, but an entire book? Well, that’s difficult. If I do sit down to read a book, I become restless after only ten or twenty minutes. I have no patience.

I believe this problem is directly tied to how much time I spend on social media. Social media has conditioned me to have a short attention span, and that’s a huge negative in my life. I crave the capacity to dive deep once more.

Get rid of whatever doesn't spark joy

Keeping the Net Positives

As long-time readers know, I’m a fan of the KonMari method of cleaning and organizing. Marie Kondo argues that you should buy, own, and keep only those things that “spark joy” in your life. Each of your possessions should be a treasure.

What she’s really asking people to do is to examine their belongings to determine whether they’re net positives or net negatives. A shirt that “sparks joy” — such as Jerry Seinfeld’s “Golden Boy”, say — is a net positive in your life, and you should keep it.

What I’ve been doing for the past couple of months is evaluating everything in my life to find what sparks joy and, conversely, what deepens despair. I want more of the former and less of the latter. (Plenty of things are neutral, of course. My toothbrush neither sparks joy nor deepens despair but it is something I choose to keep.)

Here are some of the strategies I’m employing during this process:

  • Develop awareness of how people, things, and experiences affect me. I write a lot about mindful spending. Too many people spend without thinking. I want them to be more deliberate about how they use their money. Well, the same idea applies to how we use our time and our energy. I want to pay attention to which of my habits make me feel good and which make feel bad. I want to notice which of my possessions make my life better and which make it worse.
  • Change my relationship with the problematic items and behaviors. Is it possible to reduce or minimize the negative elements and/or increase the positive elements? Reddit is a great example. If some subreddits bring joy to my life and others make me feel bad, then the obvious solution is to stop reading the forums that contribute to the negative energy. On Facebook, I could stop following the folks who insist on using it as a platform for espousing political beliefs and/or complaining.
  • Seek a replacement that sparks joy instead of deepening despair. I use alcohol as a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with anxiety and depression. I tried to replace beer with pot, but that presented its own set of problems. Next, I’m going to try to explore meditation. If that doesn’t work, I’ll continue searching for something that will help — without bringing on a bunch of baggage.
  • Accentuate the positive! There’s so much that I love about my life but too often I get distracted by the bad stuff. That’s dumb. My thought is that if I can devote more time and attention to the good stuff, that’ll naturally crowd out the negative. Right? Right?

Will I resume drinking alcohol? Will I ditch Facebook? Reddit? What role do computer games have in my life? How much time should I devote to reading? To television? To exercise? To blogging?

Over the next few months, I’ll try to answer these questions (and more!) as I explore which aspects of my life are net negatives and which are net positives. Fortunately, most of this process is fun. I enjoy it. The tough part comes when I have to decide how to address the things that are both good and bad. Then the decisions become much more difficult…

More about...Planning

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