2020/09/why-2020-feels-like-the-worst-year-ever/ every year—but especially 2020—feels like the worst ever

Why2020 feels like the worst year ever



BY REBECCA RENNER National Geographic


IN THE YEAR 2020, Jenny Eastwood became addicted to bad news. The 26-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand, couldn’t stop checking the narratives of the deadly pandemic, police brutality, protests, conspiracy theories.... Like many people, Jenny had become obsessed with our world’s seemingly increasing danger—a response that has roots in our evolutionary development. Stories of fear and peril pique our anxiety. They put our brains on high alert, an advantage that once protected our early hominid ancestors from predators and natural disasters, but one that now leaves us “doomscrolling,” endlessly refreshing social media and online news to stay abreast of the latest threats.


Our ancestors might disagree that 2020 is the worst year on record. Sure, frightening things are happening, but many of those things happened in the past, too, including the 1918 flu pandemic, during which 50 million people died. Plus, the belief that civilization is on the decline is a tradition as old as civilization itself. Even Ancient Athenians complained in the fifth century B.C. that their democracy wasn’t what it used to be.


Before the pandemic, a majority of Americans already believed the country was going downhill. Now, Americans might feel worse about the future  especially because stay-at-home orders and isolation have been affecting our mental health, which in turn increases the likelihood that we’ll see the world through the lens of negativity bias.


In Western culture, people already have a propensity to interpret present events negatively and tend to prefer the past, according to the research of Carey Morewedge, a professor of marketing at Boston University. That is because our autobiographical memories are biased toward positivity. When we think about the past, we tend to remember positive experiences. This is called  “nostalgia bias.”

Enter social media, which gives us never-ending dollops of our messy,  seemingly dire present. It’s no wonder that the past looks rosy when we have so much data on the current tribulations of the world right at our fingertips. Excessive news consumption causes stress. According to a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association, respondents who kept up with the news cycle reported lost sleep, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and other negative mental health symptoms. The same survey found as many as 20 percent of Americans constantly monitor their social media feeds for updates, and one in 10 check the news every hour.

George Gerber from the University of Pennsylvania  found that viewers who watch violent television shows typically believe violence is common in reality. The more television people watch, the more they begin to believe that television mirrors reality instead of being stylized for dramatic effect.


As Jenny Eastwood found, social media consumption can become an addictive cycle. Every time we return to social media, we have yet another slew of opportunities to fall into psychological traps.  “For young people, upward social comparison can become a problem,” says M.Bekalu, a research scientist who studies the relationship between social media and public health at the Harvard  . “Youngsters often engage in comparing themselves with others, which very often leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.”

Psychologists say we may never see the present as perfect, but we can learn to control our biases. The first step is to acknowledge how the media we consume shifts our perceptions.  Jenny Eastwood didn’t realize the impact her obsession with the news had on her mental health until her partner suggested she take a step back from social media for a while. “I decided just then and there to go cold turkey,” Eastwood says, and she hasn’t regretted her decision since.