How to Find Happiness in a Sea of Bad News

Do you want to know why Americans eat anti-depessants like Cheetos at a Super Bowl party?

Have you heard of the game “Ain’t it Awful?”

It isn’t a board game or a video game or a TV game show, it’s a conversational game we play with ourselves, our friends, our families, and our society as a whole. We play to get an emotional payoff. It relieves us of responsibility for changing the parts of our lives we can change.

You probably played “Ain’t it Awful” with friends when you were in college. Maybe you were sitting around the dorm room and the conversation went like this…

“Did you hear about Anne? She’s failing out. The dean told her she wasn’t college material.”

“Yeah? That’s nothing. Did you hear about Jenny? She’s pregnant and she won’t have an abortion. It’s going to ruin her life. She’ll have to dropout and raise a baby.”

“You know what? It could be worse. My cousin Shelia’s only 21 and already has three kids. She lives with her alcoholic boyfriend who beats her all the time. We’ve been trying to get her to leave. She used to be so smart and pretty. What a waste.”

If it’s a light game of “Ain’t it awful” it ends there, everyone shakes their heads and mutters some version of “Ain’t it Awful” and then the subject changes.

You can be sure you’re playing the game when someone mentions something awful just to be interesting and then someone else feels they have to “one up” them with an even more awful thing.

Another sure sign of the game, is how it promotes powerlessness. To be an “Ain’t it Awful” game, no solution can be sought. Seeking solutions ruins the game. The tragedies must be out of your control. And if a solution is proposed it’s usually impractical and extreme.

It also works as a way of spreading guilt. “Who are we to have it so good, when so many are suffering? It just isn’t fair, and there is nothing I can do. Ain’t it awful?”

The game can be played soft or hard. In the hard version, someone is singled out for failing to understand how awful something is. You know you’ve got a hard player, when they get offended if you try to change the subject or you don’t agree that their story is really horribly, terribly, awful. When a family plays the game hard, children are shamed and ridiculed when they don’t seem to understand how awful something is. Some families play the game hard for generations. How do I know? I’ve been a hard player for most of my life. (And, yes, I realize that this post could be the first round in a game of “Ain’t it Awful.”)

Many political and religious movements use games of “Ain’t it Awful” as a recruiting tool, using shame, guilt, and fear as a means of control.

The TV news, much of our schooling, and our society as a whole feeds us this game constantly. They dredge up the worst possible news, stick it in your face, and if you don’t say “Ain’t it awful” with enough sincere heartfelt disgust, then you must be some cold-hearted sociopath. It is no wonder half the United States is running around on anti-depressants.

But it isn’t true. The game of “Ain’t it Awful” paints a false picture of our world. For the most part, our world is a wonderful place, and we are powerful beyond our own comprehension. The “Ain’t it Awful” stories are the exceptions, not the rule. But even if the world is awful, how are guilt, shame, and depression going to help?

So what can you do about this game?

Stop playing it. Don’t spread bad news just to spread it. If you are going to talk about a problem, then seek a reasonable solution. Find out if it is actionable for you. If it isn’t, move on, and focus somewhere where you can make an impact.

You’re probably not going to end world hunger, poverty, or war.

But you can:

  • Be good to the people you touch everyday
  • Create a positive idea
  • Spread it
  • Start a business
  • Create a job
  • Create 10 jobs
  • Make some money, save some, spend some, and give some away
  • Teach others to do the same

If everyone did that, the biggest problem we’d have is… what to do with all the kindness, jobs, and money.

Now wouldn’t that be awful?

7 thoughts on “How to Find Happiness in a Sea of Bad News”

  1. Unfortunately it’s difficult to see the best when you are in the “sea of bed news”. But I’m sure that we would be more happy, we would regain our piece of mind if we would follow the rules you mentioned above. When will we realize that life is not just solving problems and being the best?

  2. Anelly,

    One thing I didn’t mention in this post is that we need to show empathy for people facing difficulty and tragedy, those people close to us that need us. We need to listen and be compassionate even if we can’t “fix” the problem. But doing that isn’t a game of “Ain’t it Awful.” The game of “Ain’t it Awful” is designed as form escapism and distraction that leads to powerless feelings and even depression. It is also used to achieve power over others by pushing guilt downward and outward. The news is a perfect example. The news isn’t about compassion or empathy, it’s about ratings and shock and entertainment. I don’t need it anymore, especially TV news.

  3. Hear, Hear. I have abandoned TV news and take the opportunity to encourage other people to look at other forms of access to the zeitgeist. My parents, sadly, are set in their ways and refuse to believe that my insistence that a federation of sites tailored to your personal interests and state of mind is far better– not only for one’s access to the wonders of the world, but for the maintenance of happiness. Yes, they are players of this aint-it-awful game. They make me play whenever I visit and I hate it.

    However (and forgive me for whipping this dead horse, but you did bring it up) I don’t think I agree with your followup that this is a big reason behind why so many people are on the happy pills. Full disclosure: I am on the happy pills. When I am not, things can be completely fine– the aint-it-awful game and bad influences long ago held at bay– and I will still be anxious, paranoid, and angry. With them I am a rational person, still feeling the full spectrum of emotions but for reasons that make sense. I don’t like that the use of these drugs is so often characterized as an indicator of how so many people just won’t man up and refuse to face their problems. That’s certainly not the case for me.

  4. Andy,

    I in no way meant that no one needs anti-depressants (is that a double negative?). This wasn’t meant to be judgmental and tell people ” to man up and refuse to face their problems.” I understand that things are never that simple. We live in a highly complex world with many different answers for different people. If anti-depressants are right for you, I’m happy for you. Becoming aware of the game of “Ain’t it Awful” has been a big help to me, and I just wanted to share it. It is something I’ve just recently gotten a handle on in the last few weeks.

    However, I will say that the use of anti-depressants has been on the rise for years. And I don’t think previous under diagnosis explains the entire rise. I have friends in the medical profession (non-psyche) that tell me over 50% of the people they see are on anti-depressants. They tell me it is especially high with women over 30. Now, I’m no doctor, but my gut tells me something more is at work here.

  5. I wonder what it’s like if we play a modified version of “ain’t it awful” where you are required to come up with some kind of silver lining for every awful event…

  6. Kelvin,

    I’ve tried that with people playing ain’t it awful and it really pisses them off. 🙂 I suppose we could try it sometime if everyone agreed.

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