2016 has been, according to many people I know, a generally awful year. A look through the Wikipedia page for “2016” reveals a list of catastrophes that are all too fresh on everyone’s minds. Terror attacks, celebrity deaths, and many upsets in international and domestic politics seem to dominate.
It is true that human beings tend to be influenced more by negative stimuli than positive stimuli of the same intensity—the so called “negativity bias.” That effect seems ever more apparent as the year approaches its end. It is also worth mentioning the “peak-end rule,” another psychological heuristic that states humans tend to evaluate a time period based on the most intense event they experienced (i.e. at the peak), whether it is good or bad. The American consciousness was probably most impacted during the elections in November, which was followed by more depressing news regarding the incoming presidency. In the past few days we’ve received news of the passing of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, bringing 2016 to a solemn finale. It’s very easy to fall into a spiral of sadness as these events weigh on us.
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U.S. unemployment rate (in percent), 2007-2016. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, during my online research for this article, I was pleasantly reminded of all the positive news that also happened in 2016. I was surprised that I had forgotten so much of it due to their being overshadowed by tragedies. The Paris Agreement is now officially international law, giant pandas are no longer classified as endangered, a new vaccine for Ebola virus was developed, and the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in ten years. The NIH received an enormous budget boost to fund research, the Summer Olympics in Brazil brought the world a little closer together, and the Cubs won the World Series after 108 years. We are now closer to sending humans to Mars than ever before, thanks to NASA and SpaceX.
Pepito in his natural state. © Arik Shams
I myself am subject to negativity bias and the peak-end rule, so I felt like the best way to combat this is to take a moment to focus on all the good things that happened in my life in 2016. I completed a 2-year research project, moved to Berkeley to start graduate school in a field I love, made some great friends along the way, and now share an apartment with my roommate’s clown of a cat. I encourage everyone else to do the same: take a moment to reminisce about the good news that has happened to you in 2016, even though it might feel like it’s not much. Maybe stop thinking of this time as “the end of the worst year ever,” and think “here comes the potentially best year of my life so far.” The value of a positive outlook is often understated, but it certainly helps. 2017 will, after all, probably be a much better year.