Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

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…

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Eileen
Eileen
22 days ago

How timely. Just yesterday I deleted the Twitter app off my phone. I realized that the feelings it created in me were just not good, perhaps not even healthy. It’s similar to FB for me, which is something I got rid of in 2012. I found then, and now, that I was starting to be impacted by people I even agreed with. Why are people behaving in this manner? What are they contributing? (I also no longer want to casually scroll and see people losing their lives on video.) I haven’t logged out of twitter on my personal laptop yet,… Read more »

Chris@TTL
22 days ago

J.D., sounds like you have some experiments ahead of you! Been following you for a while and it’s always felt like I’m a “couple years” behind you in your various life stages/experiences. I appreciate the guidance you offer when looking back! I’ve been working through some similar experimentation on some of your topics. Here’s what I’ve found. Social media: be ruthless with unfollowing – you don’t have to de-friend people on Facebook to do this, but you can get them out of your feed if it’s too much of whatever you don’t want to see (whether that’s politics or something… Read more »

Jennifer Faulkner
Jennifer Faulkner
22 days ago

Excellent article! I’ve been feeling this way for some time and you have some good, concrete ways to move toward a net-positive life!

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
22 days ago

TV is not a passive activity/hobby. Even a supposedly fluff show like The Bachelor is a master class in the editing and creating a narrative out of thousands of hours of random footage. And there are so, so many amazing TV shows available in so many genres – documentaries, dramas, etc. I have two degrees in creative writing and a PhD in rhetoric and I think TV is a completely worthy way to spend your time. I manage to watch several hours of TV a day and also read a book a week. I view the two activities as pretty… Read more »

Eileen
Eileen
22 days ago
Reply to  Honey Smith

IMO however we choose to spend our time is ‘worthy’ as long as we feel happy we did it. If we recognize that ________ is not doing that, it’s fair re-evaluate it.
There was a time where we watched the Bachelor because “real life” was difficult for various reasons, and watching anything that compared/contrasted/reminded us of real/painful things was not a great way to spend our time. The Bachelor with its ridiculous and completely UNrelatable content was just what we needed. 🙂

Ross
Ross
22 days ago
Reply to  Honey Smith

I agree that stimulating TV content can be found much more readily today. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of stuff geared towards a popular audience contains a surprising amount of fluff and junk that I find myself skipping through through. Even biographies seem to be written with a slant nowadays. It seems to have flipped from the way it was when I was a kid when TV was the junkfood.

Kat
Kat
22 days ago

Wow, you hit the nail on the head! I consume no social media other than Reddit, which I’ve used for 6 years. This spring, I started looking at r/popularposts a couple times a day to see the latest news. It became multiple times a day and was awful. I slid down a depressed rabbit hole that affected everything in my life. Finally, I decided to limit my consumption to only my subscriptions and for limited time. This helped tremendously. After reading your article, I went into my feed and removed every subreddit that didn’t bring me 100% joy with every… Read more »

Rachael H.
Rachael H.
22 days ago

Long time reader and fellow WU alum here… just wanted to sugggest trying Friendly instead of the Facebook app. I actually paid something like $2.99 for it and I never buy apps. It bypasses everything I hated about Facebook – incessant and invasive ads, the algorithm, etc. It’s been a social media game changer for me. My favorite feature is the chronological feed display – it always shows me my friends posts in the order they’re posted. No algorithm or ads or important things getting lost. Unfortunately, it can’t fix the relatives with disparate political views, but then again the… Read more »

Shaun
Shaun
22 days ago

I came to the same conclusion about a year ago. I left Facebook when I realized it was getting upset and anxious when I read it. I also was uncomfortable with all the tracking of my web activity they do. It’s been 9 months since I deleted my account and I’m much happier. Yes, I don’t get to see updates from friends I have made throughout my life, but the ones I care about, I communicate with outside of Facebook anyway.

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
22 days ago

“Has anyone ever been swayed by a political post on Facebook? Ever?”
Yet the outraged masses will continue to preach on the socials about politics, while they berate and bully those who don’t agree. One massive net-negative.
This was a great post, and a reference to Seinfeld’s Golden Boy too, one of my favorites!

Last edited 22 days ago by Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Amy
Amy
22 days ago

You’re summing up the experience I’m having with FB and reddit masterfully. I recently stopped checking FB (as) compulsively. It’s a horrible place to get news, I don’t want to be in an echo chamber, and if I don’t see these ‘friends’ in real life, then they aren’t really friends are they? My mood is definitely improved when I stay the F away from social media. I do love reading, but keep it to nonfiction. I hope you can get back into the habit. Books are, to me, a better escape than TV. I am discovering I am happier when… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin
21 days ago

I gave up Facebook for Lent this year, and was doing fine without it until two things happened: my super-awesome 19 y.o. kitty died on St. Patrick’s day, and the world shut down. I went back to Facebook with a vengeance. Recently, I’ve been seriously considering giving it up, so thanks for this article. It just doesn’t enhance my life much and is a huge time-waster. I do like being able to keep up with friends and family who don’t live nearby, and I also use FB to find out about community events. I’m thinking I will try to use… Read more »

Greg
Greg
21 days ago

Thank you for this post. Personally I deleted messenger, Facebook from my phone and blocked by computer. My life felt better after this. If meditation doesn’t help please try boxing classes. Confidence grew up after few lessons and depression despair for few moments. Love your blog. Thank you for newsletter.

Karen L
Karen L
21 days ago

Great post, JD! I strongly recommend the free course The Science of Well-Being from Coursera. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it is life-changing. I was so fortunate to find it during Covid shut-down, and it really is happiness-enhancing, although I am fortunate to be a pretty happy person anyway. There is a mindfulness component as well, and it got me started on meditation (I’ve meditated for 111 consecutive days as of today!) https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being?fbclid=IwAR06AHKxuWhAKr7O_DrPpf_s0vgrNSiGHXPYnRG39P85gQ6xUdJrtwNlnhA

Arlene
Arlene
21 days ago

I have always felt that using a mental pair of scissors and cutting out the garbage from my life was one of the most important things I did. And I’m talking people here, too. Sometimes we waste years trying to change someone and make them into a normal human, and it’s just not gonna happen. I also wanted to mention that my career was in a very stressful field, and lots of co-workers did turn to – sadly – alcohol. What I found worked for me was (keep in mind this is 40 years ago now, no CD’s, no computers)… Read more »

olga
olga
21 days ago

I love this article. Especially the part about social media (and pot and its affects, but that’s a whole another story). I’ve had a great blog going, but FB killed it – people stopped reading long (and I used to write long) stories, it’s all about scroll/click/repeat, God forbid, if there’re no photos, your words are not even register. And don’t even start me on political platform or social justice!!! Like, yeah, anybody was swayed, or educated, or briefly acknowledged an existence of a different opinion through a FB link or rant? Really? We lose friends over FB these days… Read more »

Selena
Selena
21 days ago

Not everyone has the privilege to ignore the negativity around them.

Shirley
Shirley
21 days ago

J.D, I believe you read my mind. Thanks so much for this article. Yes, I need to clean up my negative net and boost the posivite one. =)

Megan
Megan
21 days ago

I’ve been trying meditation myself for the last few months. Still unsure if the habit will stick long term. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts when you give it a try.

Morgan
Morgan
21 days ago

JD, thank you as ever for your candor. Your experiences are mirroring mine and many of my clients’, and I appreciate your thoughtful way in communicating them, especially wrt sensitive topics like substance use and abuse. You’re spot on that distractions like reddit, a fb feed full of unwinnable opinion battles, alcohol, pot – they’re all distractions that have been leading you to a place of stillness. I am so excited to read about your meditation journey. Meditation, like anything, is all about finding the right guide at the right time. I started with headspace, traveled the world studying various… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
20 days ago

Have you ever gone through a setting healthy boundaries exercise? It is something you can do with all aspects of your life from the people who are around you to the things in your life. It might be good to help you determine where you need to change the boundaries you currently have.

Nigel B
Nigel B
20 days ago

A superb thought provoking article. I’ve been on a similar journey for a few months and have started exploring mindfulness. One of the best introductions to the subject I’ve come across is ‘Mindfulness in plain English’ by Bhante Gunaratana. Fascinating insights and great to listen to on Audible. Highly recommended!

Torrie @ To Love and To Learn
Torrie @ To Love and To Learn
19 days ago

Have you ever read the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport? A lot of what you talked about here reminded me of that, and if you haven’t given it a chance yet, definitely consider looking into it!

Joe
Joe
18 days ago

I’m taking the rest of 2020 off from caring. Now, I avoid news and cut back on social media. I already have too many problems to deal with. I’ll care again in 2021.
Good job cutting back on alcohol. The pot experiment doesn’t sound good, though. Good luck find a healthy alternative. Meditation and exercise should help.

Saar
Saar
8 days ago

Just want to say thank you for this. There’s so much I can relate to in this article. Would like to read more about your struggles with and finding your way out of a depression. It looks like you’re making the right choices and I hope this will pay off soon so things will get better!

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