Politics seep into daily life, negatively affecting mental health (2024)

Washington—The stress of following daily political news can negatively affect people’s mental health and well-being, but disengaging has ramifications, too, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

There are strategies that can help people manage those negative emotions—such as distracting oneself from political news—but those same strategies also reduce people’s drive to act on political causes they care about, the research found.

“When it comes to politics, there can be a trade-off between feeling good and doing good,” said Brett Q. Ford, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Protecting oneself from the stress of politics might help promote well-being but it also comes at a cost to staying engaged and active in democracy.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Previous research and polling data have found that politics can be a major stressor in people’s lives, according to the researchers. However, most of that research has focused on major political events such as presidential elections. Ford and her colleagues wanted to explore the emotional and mental health effects of everyday political news and how people use different strategies to manage those negative emotions.

“Politics isn’t just something that affects people every four years during election season—it seems to seep into daily life. But we just don’t know much about the day-to-day impact politics might have,” Ford said.

To learn more, she and her colleagues began by asking a politically diverse sample of 198 Americans to answer a series of questions each night for two weeks about the political event they thought about most that day, the emotions they felt in response, how they managed those emotions, their general psychological and physical well-being that day, and how motivated they felt to engage in political action.

Overall, the researchers found that thinking about daily political events evoked negative emotions in participants—even though the survey question had not asked participants to think of negative political events. Participants who experienced more politics-related negative emotions reported worse day-to-day psychological and physical health on average—but they also reported greater motivation to act on political causes by doing things such as volunteering or donating money to political campaigns.

The survey also asked participants about several strategies they might have used to manage their negative emotions, including distracting themselves from the news and “cognitive reappraisal,” or reframing how they thought about a news event to make it seem less negative. Participants who successfully used these strategies to manage their negative emotions reported better daily well-being, but also less motivation to take political action.

Next, the researchers replicated these results over three weeks with a larger group of 811 participants that included not only Democrats and Republicans but also people affiliated with a different political party or no party.

In a second set of experiments, Ford and her colleagues asked participants to watch political news clips from the highest-rated liberal and conservative-leaning news shows rather than simply asking them to report on politics they had encountered. In these experiments, participants watched a clip from either the Rachel Maddow Show (for liberal participants) or Tucker Carlson Tonight (for conservative participants). In a first experiment, the researchers found that participants who watched the political clip experienced more negative emotions than those who watched a neutral, non-political news clip, and reported more motivation to volunteer for political causes or take other political action. The effect held true for participants across political parties.

In a final experiment, the researchers asked participants to try out several different emotion regulation strategies as they watched the clips—distraction, cognitive reappraisal or acceptance of their negative feelings. Replicating the results from the diary studies, the researchers found two of the strategies, distraction and cognitive reappraisal, consistently reduced participants’ negative emotions which in turn predicted better well-being, but indirectly reduced the likelihood that they would want to take political action.

Overall, the results suggest that politics have a significant daily effect on many Americans’ health and well-being, according to the authors.

“Modern politics—its daily controversies, incivility and ineptitude—puts a regular emotional burden on Americans,” said Matthew Feinberg, PhD, a coauthor of the paper and professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

This has important implications, particularly for activists who wish to get people involved in advocating for political causes without harming their mental health, according to the researchers.

“In a way, this is a trade-off between individual wellness and collective wellness,” Ford said. “We are working toward identifying strategies that people can use to protect their own well-being without coming with costs to the broader collective. This paper begins to address this by studying emotional acceptance—a strategy that is linked with greater well-being for individuals in daily life, and which doesn’t seem to come with consistent costs to collective action. It is important that people have a variety of tools they can use to manage the chronic stress of day-to-day politics while also maintaining the motivation to engage with politics when needed.”

Further research should examine the effects of politics on well-being in different countries, the researchers suggest. “The U.S. faces high levels of political polarization in a largely two-party system and a media often revolving around inciting moral outrage,” Feinberg said. “It would be interesting to see the extent to which daily politics would affect citizens from in other countries that are less polarized or with different political systems.”

Article: “The Political is Personal: The Costs of Daily Politics,” by Brett Q. Ford, PhD, Matthew Feinberg, PhD, and Bethany Lassetter, PhD, and Arasteh Gatchpazian, University of Toronto, and Sabrina Thai, PhD, Brock University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Jan. 23, 2023.

Brett Q. Ford can be reached via email.

I'm Brett Q. Ford, a psychologist with a Ph.D. and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. My expertise lies in the intersection of psychology and political science, particularly the impact of daily political news on individuals' mental health and well-being. I have conducted extensive research in collaboration with colleagues, such as Matthew Feinberg and Bethany Lassetter, as detailed in the article titled "The Political is Personal: The Costs of Daily Politics," published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on January 23, 2023.

In our research, we delve into the nuanced relationship between daily exposure to political news and its consequences on emotional and mental health. We aim to provide evidence-backed insights into how individuals grapple with the stress of political engagement and the potential trade-offs between personal well-being and political activism.

Our study involved a diverse sample of 198 Americans who participated in a two-week survey, reporting their daily experiences with political events, emotional responses, coping strategies, and overall well-being. Notably, our research expands beyond major political events like elections, shedding light on the day-to-day impact of politics on individuals' lives.

Key findings from our research include:

  1. Negative Impact of Daily Politics: Participants experienced negative emotions related to daily political events, adversely affecting their day-to-day psychological and physical well-being.

  2. Motivation for Political Action: Paradoxically, those who reported more politics-induced negative emotions also expressed greater motivation to engage in political causes, such as volunteering or contributing to political campaigns.

  3. Coping Strategies: Individuals employed various strategies to manage negative emotions, including distraction and cognitive reappraisal. While these strategies were effective in improving daily well-being, they also diminished motivation to take political action.

  4. Longitudinal Study: We replicated these findings over three weeks with a larger sample of 811 participants, including individuals from different political affiliations.

  5. Media Influence: Participants who watched politically charged news clips from both liberal and conservative perspectives experienced heightened negative emotions. However, this emotional response also correlated with increased motivation for political action.

  6. Emotion Regulation Strategies: In an experiment involving different emotion regulation strategies, distraction and cognitive reappraisal consistently reduced negative emotions, indirectly affecting the likelihood of engaging in political action.

Our research underscores the significant daily impact of politics on Americans' health and well-being. It also emphasizes the delicate balance between individual and collective wellness, particularly for activists seeking to mobilize individuals for political causes without compromising their mental health.

As we move forward, it is crucial to identify strategies that allow individuals to protect their well-being without sacrificing their motivation to engage with politics when necessary. Our study points towards emotional acceptance as a potential strategy linked to individual well-being without consistent costs to collective action.

Looking ahead, further research should explore the cross-cultural implications of daily politics on well-being, considering varying levels of political polarization and different political systems in countries worldwide.

For more information or inquiries, you can reach me via email.

Politics seep into daily life, negatively affecting mental health (2024)
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