Ask Ellen: How can I stay optimistic when so many awful things are happening in the world?

Dear Ellen,

Like many people, I take a few moments to listen to NPR or watch the news on TV every day. I want to be informed about what’s going on in the world. I don’t want to be oblivious. I don’t want to exist inside of a “bubble” of privilege and comfort when millions are suffering.

The problem is: after listening to the daily news, I just feel so depressed. I can literally feel the energy draining out of my body. Once, after listening to NPR for several hours during a long drive in my car, I broke down sobbing and I was a wreck for the rest of the day. I could barely focus on my work and I struggled to get anything done.

My question for you is: how can I stay “informed” without letting bad news completely wear me down? How can I stay “hopeful” when so many awful things are happening in the world? I know that you are interested in law, politics, and making the world a better place. I’d love your thoughts on this.

Trying To Be Happy In This Not-So-Happy World


Dear Trying To Be Happy,

I hear you.

Like you, I like to stay on top of the news—especially during an election year.

And like you, I find the deluge of unhappy news to be pretty overwhelming. These past few months, in particular, my eyes, ears, and mind feel completely saturated with horrific story after story after story. Orlando. Campus rape. Syrian refugees clutching their children close, cold and frightened, clinging to rafts floating across the sea…

You asked, “How can I stay ‘informed’ without letting bad news completely wear me down?”

It’s a good question. I believe that it’s possible to do this. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes, you have to come up with creative “coping strategies” to balance despair with hope and optimism.

One of my personal strategies is writing a daily “gratitude journal.” Once a day, I write down a few things I am grateful for. They don’t need to be heavy or meaningful. (“I’m grateful for this lovely park near my house,” “I’m grateful that there’s a new episode of Scandal airing tonight”).

I’ve been writing my grateful thoughts for many years. Not every single day—sometimes I forget, or I’m just just a little too busy and distracted to remember to wake up to the world around me—but almost every day, I take the time to stop and breathe in these small important moments. I love it. It’s one of my favorite moments of the day.

Here’s another strategy that I love: writing a “happy report.”

A beautiful writer named Katrina Kenison first brought the term “happy report” into my consciousness. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a list of things you are happy about. It’s like your own personal news coverage filled exclusively with positive stories.

As Katrina puts it, a happy report is “a powerful antidote to a day’s petty grievances or the grim realities of the evening news […] a reminder that even the most challenging day contains its moment of grace, if we are willing to seek it out.”

I love that.

Today, inspired by Katrina, I’d like to share my own personal happy report. (And to everyone reading this advice column, I encourage you to write your own happy report as well. It’s a wonderful exercise.)

I am happy to report that… I promised myself I would walk and exercise more this year, and I’m doing it! I typically listen to a podcast (like Dear Sugar) or an audio book while I walk. I let myself get lost in the story, and before I know it, I’ve walked for 45 minutes or an hour or more.

I am happy to report that… after searching (with a fair amount of frustration) for many months, I finally found a new place to live that’s quiet, pretty, cozy, and within my budget. I’ve been enjoying my new home very much and I feel so fortunate to be here.

I am happy to report that… my two sons, Willie and Lexy, are both smart, caring, wonderful young men doing interesting work in the world. It’s a joy to watch them pursue their chosen careers, take brave leaps, learn (sometimes uncomfortable) lessons, and grow wiser each year. W & L: raising you has been—and still is—the greatest privilege of my life.

I am happy to report that… my life has been filled with wonderful books, articles, and other discoveries lately. I read The Crossroads of Should and Must and loved it. I read a friend’s memoir, Harley and Me, which was empowering and brilliant (you can see my interview with the author here). I’ve been diving deep into a website called Medium which is filled with all kinds of user-submitted stories (anyone can contribute a story—you don’t have to be invited).

I am happy to report that… I took an emotional risk this year and reached out to a colleague to ask if she’d consider co-teaching a program with me. She’s a very busy woman who already juggles so many projects, so it was a bit of a long shot that she’d say “Yes.” In fact, I was pretty sure she’d say “No” and I was a teensy bit nervous about feeling rejected. But I decided, “What’s the worst that could happen?” so I reached out, and then… she said “Yes!”

We ended up creating a program called Go Get It! and the first session was a huge success. About 80 women participated. We call them our “Go Getters.” Each woman chose a specific career, business, or income-related goal and pursued that goal with intense focus for six weeks. The community of women was so passionate and supportive of one another—and the results were spectacular. I’m so happy that I drummed up the courage to reach out to my colleague to say, “Hey, would you like to do this with me?”

I am happy to report that… Go Get It! will be returning this fall! Registration for the next session opens on September 20th and the first day of the online program begins on October 10th (which is also my birthday!). I can’t wait to see what happens inside the “virtual classroom” the second time around.

I am happy to report that… putting together this happy report made me feel very happy. I may need to make it a recurring tradition, along with those daily gratitude texts.

In conclusion, Trying To Be Happy, when you feel overwhelmed by the evening news, or by anything else that’s happening in your life, remember that it’s OK to feel things deeply. Remember that it’s OK to cry. But also, remember that it’s OK to take care of yourself—and to develop personal “coping strategies” to keep you feeling as hopeful and optimistic as possible.

Try a gratitude journal. Try writing a happy report. Try taking a temporary break from “regular news” and visit a website like the Good News Network, which exclusively features positive, encouraging news stories. Or try getting involved with a political party or a cause that you care about. Volunteer. Do something to shape the world in a positive way. Sometimes volunteering, even just for an hour or two, can buoy your spirits and remind you that people can be kind, good, and generous… and that there’s plenty of hope for the human race, yet.

Good luck out there, Trying To Be Happy.

Maybe skip NPR tonight and read the collected poems of Hafiz instead.

I’ll join you.


Image: Willie Franklin