Politics are Killing Us – But Kittens May Be the Solution

When you think of the potentially dangerous things you’re exposed to, what comes to mind? Pollution? Gun violence? Artificial sweeteners? How about Thanksgiving? You know, that day set aside to feast on enough turkey to induce a food coma while trying to decide whether to engage in meaningful dialogue with your crazy Uncle Louie about his ridiculous political position (because “people like him are what’s wrong with this country!”) or bite your tongue until it’s bloody.

In what has become standard pre-Thanksgiving study, there is no shortage of online advice as to how to politically engage/disengage with your adversarial relatives. Don’t believe me? Google “how to deal with politics at Thanksgiving” and you’ll get more than 31 million hits.

Despite the fact that our country is more divided than ever, most people will agree on one thing: politics are exhausting.

Thanks to an all-you-can-eat social media feed and a 24-hour news cycle, we live in a perpetual cycle of outrage and moral defense that, more often than not, devolves into fruitless acrimony.  With Thanksgiving on the horizon and political sh!tshow of epic proportions (just this week!), I thought I’d share some news you can use.

According to a new study published last month at the University of Nebraska, we’re energy-depleted, sleep-deprived, and physically ill – all because of politics. The research, led by political scientist Kevin Smith, is the first to take a comprehensive look at the physical and emotional costs of paying attention to and participating in political discourse. The findings are bleak, and according to Smith, this is as close as it gets to a public health crisis. The numbers show an increase in chronic stress, physical ailments, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

“Quite a few of the numbers jumped out at me,” Smith said. “Twenty percent have damaged friendships because of political disagreements. One in five report fatigue. And it’s a small (proportion), but 4% of the people in our sample said they’ve had suicidal thoughts because of politics. That translates into 10 million adults.”

Every day the news is filled with stories about crime, terrorism, violence, injustice, drug abuse and oppression. With 24/7 access on every device, it’s impossible to escape the negative news coverage completely. Have you ever wondered how all of that bad news affects your brain? Not your feelings – but literally affects your brain chemistry?

We can blame some of it on the media, but there is some neuroscience behind it, too. Recent studies maintain that heavy news-watchers experience higher anxiety, increased depression, learned helplessness, an overproduction of cortisol and greater activation in the survival brain.

There is good news, though. We are visual creatures and our brain is biased towards visual information. We can tell in a split second if the environment is safe (evoking happy/positive emotional responses) or dangerous (evoking more anger or fear-based emotional responses) by visual cues around us.  This is what has enabled us to evolve and survive extinction.

Research shows that certain images can make us happier, increase our resilience to stress and prime our brains for positive behaviors toward others like care, compassion, and empathy. A whole range of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we view warm fuzzy images of animals and babies. The brain’s pleasure center is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, is released. This surge decreases stress and aggression as it increases positive emotions and mood. In addition, a strong nurturing response kicks in and we experience a desire to protect rather than attack.

So, go ahead… check out that cute kitten video. Your brain will thank you. And who knows… it might actually help you (and Uncle Louie) survive Thanksgiving this year.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Great article, Melissa! Civility is seriously lacking in society today; hopefully, this negative culture we live in is just a phase. In the meantime, its good to know that it is scientifically possible to switch gears. Would love to have my faith in humanity restored..

    • Amen to that, Debbie! Political discourse has most definitely sucked the oxygen out of the room. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts!

  2. Melissa, one of the first mentors in my life taught me something that I don’t abide by enough, but I am being more intentional and deliberate about it lately. His words were “People need to be able to disagree without becoming disagreeable.” I love to talk and engage people on any number of topics, and here comes the “but”… I won’t do politics any more. I used to be rather strident and outspoken, but it really doesn’t serve any purpose. People rarely change their minds, and so, I have opened up whole new avenues of discussion, and it allows you to get to know people on so many other, deeper, and more meaningful levels. I honestly don’t want to know anyone’s political beliefs, because it’s too easy to put them in a box and dismiss or enhance what they say and believe on so many other things.

    Politics has its place, but truly, it’s over valued. It gets more than its share of jaw jacking on TV, and I am more than happy to let it be there. Unless things drastically change, I will be the Chief Joseph on the topic – “I will discuss politics no more, forever.” Give me the opportunity to talk about anything else, to learn about anything else, and it’s a gift, a joy, an opportunity. Cat and dog videos are valuable substitutes to discussions of donkeys and elephants…

    As always, Melissa, another really good discussion on a timely (and timeworn, and time consuming, and time eating) topic..

    • I agree, Tom, that politics has a way of sucking the air out of the room most days. For me, though, not engaging in conversations that are fundamental to society as we know it and the threats to the constructs I value just isn’t an option. By bowing out of the conversation altogether, it’s as if I am minimizing that value and letting the loudest voices in the room define what is of value. I can’t do that.

      That said, I’m learning (or trying to learn) how to nurture intellectual humility so that I might be able to participate in those conversations more effectively. Notice the focus on my participation. I may not change anyone’s mind about anything. But, intentionally going into a political debate with someone who is on the “opposing side” to understand their position is the only way meaningful dialogue will happen. I’m a work in progress, and some days I don’t excel in that, but it’s in my sphere of awareness. I also know more than a few people who have decided not to engage in any political discourse for the sake of their sanity and peace. I get that, too.

      I wrote a piece on Intellectual Humility here:

      I’d love to know your thoughts on this one. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights.

  3. A great piece, Melissa, which made me think about a NY Times article I read recently where 526 voters from across the country came together in Texas to discuss the issues of the day. The conversations were largely unmoderated. People just sitting down and talking with their fellow Americans.

    There was some evidence that both those on the left and right moved more toward the center, but I thought one participant summed things up beautifully:

    “I don’t think the purpose of this conference was to change people’s minds. I think the purpose of this conference was to get people to accept each other’s points of view in a civil manner.”

    Civility. That perhaps is the greatest casualty today. We’ve lost the ability to speak with one another. There is no real listening in Congress. No purposeful discourse. No real debate.

    OK, back to the cat video for me!

    • Jeff, that NYTimes article was so interesting. Thank you for sharing! I got the same take-away as you did: “I don’t think the purpose of this conference was to change people’s minds. I think the purpose of this conference was to get people to accept each other’s points of view in a civil manner.” It’s hard to do some days. I say that with no judgment or self-righteousness. I’m guilty, too. That’s why I have a few cat videos in my back pocket, too! Thanks for taking the time to read and share your insights! You always make me think!

  4. OH, I’ll buy that, Melissa. I can’rt remember a time before where there have been such large political divides and fundamental differences on so many fronts. It’s a turbulent time, indeed…..and why I stay away from political conversations both online and face to face. Even my own family is divided, but that’s not unusual at all.

    My fix? Time with my dog. Seriously. Maybe that’s why there is such a surge in support animals? Hmmm….:)

    Interesting article! Thank you!

    • It’s sad but true… the political landscape is not just dividing the country. It’s dividing families. In other news, I’m really glad you’re spending more time with your dog, Andy! Thanks for taking the time to read and share!