A tense political environment can cause poor mental health, but also leads to more volunteerism, study shows.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, polarized political climates have a complex effect on individual well-being. Researchers found, as expected, that keeping up with the daily actions of politicians causes negative emotions, which can then lead to poorer physical and mental health. Matthew Feinberg, an author of the study and associate professor at the University of Toronto, stated, “We expected people would have negative reactions to politics each day, but we were somewhat surprised by how consistent the effects were.”
According to Feinberg, all this negativity associated with tense political climates can be traced back to the basic fact that people take politics personally. People “internalize what happens in the political arena,” meaning that “the scandals, the incivility and the animosity so common and central in the political arena is impairing many people’s well-being on a daily basis,” the authors wrote.
This is by no means the first study to look at the effects of politics on stress, but it is one of the first to look at daily stress rather than stress surrounding significant political moments such during election time. In their first experiment, the researchers spoke with almost 200 Americans of all political backgrounds and asked them to highlight the political news that they thought about every day for two weeks straight.
Researchers asked how the news made the participants feel, if they did anything to process these emotions, and how motivated individuals felt to become involved in their communities to support their views. Even though participants were not told to focus on the negative, they did so anyway, suggesting that consuming political news is a largely negative experience. Researchers then linked these negative emotions to worse overall health, both mentally and physically.
In their second experiment, researchers asked over 800 Americans of all political backgrounds to watch a TV news clip. Liberals watched a clip from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and conservatives watched a clip from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. When compared with those who watched neutral, non-political clips, those who watched partisan clips reported feeling much less positive as a result.
However, the team did find a positive within the negative: staying politically informed in the midst of polarized political climates serves a greater good in motivating people to become involved in important causes through volunteer work or donations. Additionally, participants suggested they had ways to process the negativity, whether by disengaging, distracting themselves, or trying to reframe their reaction to be less impactful.
Feinberg explained, “People can distance themselves from politics by reminding themselves how what is happening in the political arena has little to do with their personal lives. Alternatively, people can take a break from politics and instead distract themselves with something more enjoyable and apolitical [such as] watching a movie or playing a video game.”
Still, there is a trade-off involved. When people take steps to protect their well-being, they become less engaged with the political process and, therefore, less motivated to become involved in volunteer activities within their communities.
Lynn Bufka, a member of the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” team, offered a reason for the negativity people feel after consuming the news, saying, “Our news cycle tends to highlight controversial aspects of politics, and perhaps ‘pull for’ more negative emotion.” According to Bufka, people must “find ways to maintain their motivation to act and at the same time to work towards desired change, while still managing what can be strong emotions.