Dont look now, but an epidemic of niceness is sweeping the land.
Wait a minute, youre thinking. Arent we still recovering from one of the most toxic campaign seasons in memory, a period so aswarm with negative political ads you practically needed to don a hazmat suit just to watch TV?
Sure. But a countervailing phenomenon has arisen in the form of movements, websites and organizations devoted to accentuating the positive, to looking for the silver lining, to seeing the glass as perpetually half-full, to being just ..... plain ..... nice. As Santa Claus takes his annual inventory this week, he may find the ranks of the naughty a tad less populated than usual.
Consider the scene at Fenway Park last week as Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka signed with the Red Sox after difficult negotiations. Sox president Larry Lucchino, usually no softie, was the picture of politesse, referring to the pitcher as Matsuzaka-san. And agent Scott Boras, another guy known for his sharp edges, rushed over to help Noted Nice Guy John W. Henry when the Sox owner took a tumble after catching a ceremonial pitch from Matsuzaka.
But that was only one of many signs that niceness is busting out all over. Former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan recently launched a good-news website whose organizing principle is One radical idea: The world is a good place. Her website, DarynKagan.com, is not to be confused with HappyNews.com, a year-old site that publishes only upbeat stories of the sort it considers underplayed by the media. (HappyNews.com is so determined to avoid downers that it does not publish election results or sports scores because, while there are winners, there are also those long-faced losers.) Even the book world, that font of schadenfreude, has gotten on board with the best-selling The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness.
The surprise box-office hit Borat may come off as a rude movie, but the title character (played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) trades on a nice-guy demeanor, and its worth noting that Borats catchphrase is very nice. In the aftermath of the midterm elections, a caller to WBURs On Point opined that a new dynamic is now in effect on Capitol Hill: They have to out-nice each other if they want a shot at staying relevant. Is it telling that two guys who werent exactly known for trying to out-nice their foes, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton, have recently resigned their posts under pressure?
Oprah Winfrey, that national arbiter of popular taste, made room on her TV couch for Juan Mann, an Australian who founded a Free Hugs campaign. In Boston, the MBTA rewarded nice behavior by passengers a couple of months ago by handing out $2 gift cards to Dunkin Donuts. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the San Francisco-based website Iskip.com encourages people to let go of their inhibitions and just skip thats right, skip in the belief that Todays world needs as much positive skipping energy as possible.
All this sweetness and light is enough to give a certified curmudgeon like P.J. ORourke a toothache. I seem to remember we tried all this in the summer of 1967, growls ORourke, a humorist and author who lives in New Hampshire. My memory is foggy, but somehow I think it all ended in tears.
True, the Age of Aquarius didnt last long. But what is behind this new emanation of good vibrations? Is the Age of Irony giving way to the Age of Nice?
Kim Corbin hopes so. When the 38-year-old book publicist founded Iskip.com in 1999, her goal was simply to enable work-weary adults to connect with one another by rediscovering the childhood joy of skipping. But today, she contends, skipping can be an act of defiance in the face of geopolitical gloom and doom. Its so easy to be overwhelmed, she says. Weve got war. Weve got terrorism. Its a really intense time. Its even more challenging to choose otherwise, to be in the moment enjoying your life.
Her website radiates good cheer. Along with information about skippings health benefits and advice on starting skipping clubs, it features a marathon skipper, a skipping cowboy, and a photo of a beaming Helen Fink of Lima, Ohio, who holds a large yellow smiley face while kneeling next to a car with the license plate I SKIP. Skip on, Helen! Corbin cheers on the website. Way to spread the happy message! Corbin practices what she preaches by regularly taking part in group skips in Golden Gate Park and skipping on the treadmill at the gym. A lot of people think Im crazy for wanting to skip, she acknowledges. I think its crazy to be inhibited and not be joyful and feel like you cant do something because other people are judging you.
Elsewhere on the Web is Kagans good-news site, with its emphasis on stories that illustrate the triumph of the human spirit. These are the types of stories Ive always been drawn to in my news career, Kagan says. Im a big fan of news; I think its really important to be informed. I also think its important to be inspired. The content Im collecting is not happy news. I call it hopeful news.
DarynKagan.com features upbeat headlines such as No legs. No problem. (over a story about a man with prosthetic legs training for a triathlon), and a story from a woman whose bout with cancer prompted her to leave a top management job, write her memoirs, become a motivational speaker, and generally live a more fulfilling life. Hard to believe, but in my case, having cancer turn my life Inside Out has been a gift, she wrote. Another story on the website is about a 13-year-old boy who, diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, cocreated a series of comic books starring OmegaBoy, who does battle with evil Dr. Diabetes, in an attempt to help other youngsters cope with the disease.
Bad things happen in the world, Kagan says. But I believe everyone has this life filter, this life view. We all run around collecting stories in our head to support whatever that life view is. Im choosing to have the life view that good things are happening.
After many years in the TV news business, whose unofficial motto is If it bleeds, it leads, Kagan knows she is bucking the media tide. Her website has already drawn ridicule, and she says she has been told that good news doesnt sell. She doesnt buy it. If those people dont want to come and feel good, thats fine, she says. If you want to feel bad about the world, there are plenty of media sources out there. But theres not a lot of sources out there for people who want to feel good.
Power of positive reporting
One such source is HappyNews%.com, founded a year ago by Byron Reese, CEO of PageWise Inc. Reese says he has launched dozens of websites, but none has grown as quickly as HappyNews.com, which publishes positive stories from wire services and freelance writers. The site now gets more than a million hits a month. Theres just a hunger for it, Reese says.
Why? In his view, its because 90 percent of what happens in the world is upbeat, yet the traditional media focus primarily on the 10 percent that is not. So, he says, his site tries to project a more positive world view, that theres a lot of good in the world. When General Motors closed an auto manufacturing plant and laid off thousands of workers, HappyNews.com sought out a report of a company opening a plant (it found a Toyota factory in North Carolina). Both events are equally noteworthy, Reese says, but the GM story was the one that dominated the traditional media.
Im trying to inject a little hope and little positiveness and a little optimism, so people will think maybe theres a silver lining, he says.
Corbin, too, chooses to see silver linings and rosy scenarios. Paradoxically enough, she suggests that nice draws its strength from nasty. It is in direct correlation with the amount of fear, she says. As the fear gets more intense, theres this countermovement of rising above it. Because otherwise, it looks pretty dreadful.
But to ORourke, the prospect of rampant niceness is itself pretty dreadful. I guess if you hang around long enough youll see everything be fashionable sooner or later, he says with a resigned sigh. Including niceness.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.