Conversation with Discovery Channel Producer Meghan Keener
Conversation with Discovery Channel Producer Meghan Keener
I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Meghan Keener, Discovery Channel co-ordinating producer, on the findings of a dissertation she’s just completed on positive media for a University of Pennsylvania masters in applied positive psychology. I thought it was a talk worth sharing in its near-entirety, as Meghan discusses her interest in exploring the strengths of mainstream media today, how we can build on those and why it's critical to do so for our global well-being.
What’s the commitment you hold that brought you to this subject?
You might have heard of Martin Seligman’s theory of wellbeing, PERMA, and Ed Diener’s research showing that the meaning component of PERMA is the most correlated with satisfaction with life.
For me, working in media for 12 years, that was one of the pieces that was lacking.
I had been trying to find meaning in relationships with people that I’ve met along the way — some of the most incredible people to me are the people I’ve worked with on different shows and movies (and others I’ve interviewed) — but I really thought that media could do a better job of trying to create a positive impact.
Instead of having to search around for it, the story could start from the premise of, “Let’s leave the viewer or participant better than we found them.”
I also wanted to help set a tone for dialogue, at least in the positive psychology community, about what media does best because I think that we take for granted the power of the media. Media can cause an emotion so easily, for example.
So what is that power?
That just got me interested: How come there are so few studies on how media can help people, because it has to be able to, otherwise why would we use it so much?
Why would we consume so many hours of television and movies and games, if it didn't provide us with (at least some) positive outcomes we want?
My paper was an "appreciative inquiry" into what media does best for well-being.
What surprised you most about your findings?
When I started doing the research, I didn’t know much about media psychology. And I’m still learning, but the thing that surprised me is that there is so much information and theory about how different mediums can do things differently. Marshall McLuhan's ideas that "the medium is the message" has in some ways been debunked and criticized.
But circling back around to asking which tool is the right tool for the job, I think, is a conversation we need to be having again, because as media becomes available to us in so many different formats, mindfulness is going to play a key part in helping us to choose which tools we’re using as an outgrowth of our humanity.
McLuhan said all media is an extension of ourselves, and that technology was the most human thing about us. I’m starting to think he’s right. It’s old thinking, but it’s becoming true again.
When I go for a run, I use Nike+; it’s like an extension of me that's providing functional feedback, or, I could say, aiding me in self-quantification. As a media tool it acts as an extension of my brain, giving feedback that can help me optimize my chosen outcomes and develop more healthy patterns.
Or when I tell people something on Facebook, if I feel like I am actually having a conversation, the social medium could be considered an extension of my mouth for example.
So that surprised me, that there has already been a lot of conversation about how as we move forward, we can do it in a way that sustains us, sustains our humanity and allows us to be expressive in a deeply human way.
A lot of the conversation about media is that it’s getting us away from our humanity, and so for me it was a nice surprise to see how it can be used to make us even more human.
What did you identify in terms of what and how we can build on what media offers to really ensure and allow for that well-being?
In my paper I write about how we can use some of what we know from positive psychology to engage with media in more meaningful ways — both individuals who don’t work in the media as professionals, as well as those who do.
So I came up with a list of recommendations, things like practicing mindfulness in your media consumption, knowing your desired motivation and outcome for consuming media, learning to savour, choosing the type of media that gives you flow or engaging skillful activity.
That last one is a little tricky. Television, for example, can’t really foster flow. It has been said to provide "faux flow." Unless you’re a TV critic, you’re probably not using your skills when you’re watching TV.
But you could get in flow, for example, through gaming, or through apps like Words with Friends, etc.
Researching and understanding your own character strengths is another way to help you make decisions about your media consumption. Character strengths are a foundation of positive psychology. Operating with the understanding of over- and under- use of your strengths allows you a more powerful way to see yourself and also come to connect with others.
Going back to media, this knowledge can, for example, help you identify heroes with character strengths you would like to have. To foster justice, you might ask yourself, "What would Atticus Finch do?" To develop more bravery, "What would Superman do?"
Some of the ways we can consume and create media in order to cultivate our own well-being:
Ideas for professionals aiming to create media that fosters well-being:
It can sound silly, but it does give you a cultural narrative that you can use to be a guide for your life.
People unconsciously model celebrities, but if you can more consciously do it with character strengths as your language, I think that can be pretty cool.
I talk a little bit about spirituality and finding communities of media consumers that are aligned with your spiritual values.
And then finally, when you’re creating media, knowing that well-being is actually contagious through social network, is very powerful information.
Your Facebook posts and YouTube videos have a ripple effect out into the world, and it's important to be conscious of that when creating media.
One of the things I really started to be conscious of when writing this paper is how we’re all "the media" now, and we have to be more conscious about what that means. What are you putting out into the world through your networks?
Wow. There’s some rich stuff in all that.
I think positive psychology is victim to a lot of thinking that this is just common sense and to some extent it is, that's true — but what I think is so interesting is how a lot of what we think of as common sense is now backed by empirical research.
That gives positive psychology a new kind of strength about which most people are still unaware.
I end my paper with comments on why positive psychology needs media and why media needs positive psychology.
That for me is the really the driver of this new dialogue.
Education is so crucial for facilitating people’s well-being and I really think media is even more important, considering the amount of hours Americans are spending with media.
Jane McGonigal, the game designer who wrote Reality is Broken, found that the average American 18-year-old already has 10,000 hours of gaming. In psychology there is concept called deliberate practice, where when you do anything for 10,000 hours of deliberate practice you accumulate a level of expertise where it becomes automatic for you. That’s the average American 18-year-old in terms of gaming.
And gaming is intrinsically motivated activity, so it holds a lot of power.
So, I think media is — speaking very broadly and including things like gaming, social media — an incredibly powerful tool that really needs to be a deep part of a conversation about psychology or any kind of conversation about global well-being.
One last question; do you want to speak to the crossroads you’re facing right now with this particular work?
The more you respect media, the more you know about the impact that it can have, the more cautious you are about what you’re putting out into the world.
I think the more you achieve in your career and personal life, the less achievement for achievement’s sake means to you and the more you turn to things like contribution or community to make you happy.
I want to know that I can sleep at the end of the day with a clear conscience, and that I did everything I could to tell stories of real people but in ways that leave someone better off for having seen those stories.
Media is also having its own evolution because people are seeing that epidemics like childhood obesity definitely correlate with TV consumption and gaming is linked to aggressive behaviour. So we know a lot of the bad stuff about media and I think people are trying to change that.
With gaming, for example, some companies have made it so you don’t get the same amount of points after you play an X amount of hours, because they’re encouraging you to take a bio break.
Design implementations can attempt to foster well-being, just as we have entire new networks now that are also trying to make well-being a content focus.
So I think the media world is taking note. People are sick of hearing the same violent news stories and dumbed-down content and those consumers are the ones that are ultimately going to drive content creation.
Consumers are the ones sending the message of what they want so I think the power really lies — not in people like you and me (as professionals) — but the consumer.
If we stop to listen to what people really want, it is things like the "hero narrative" in news, which Danish journalist Cathrine Gyldensted is working on, and things like technology that increases mindfulness.
So I’m hopeful that the consumer and the designer and the content producer are all helping drive media in a new direction.
Like you said earlier, we are in this timeof having the added dynamic of co-creating media, the professional media and citizens all involved in this together.
Yes, so now is a good time for us to stop and think about how we navigate that in a human way that is really aligned with our values and our character, the character we want to build and the communities we want to nurture.
In some ways I think there are two main things here, which are character strengths — having an appreciative lens — and meaning — what you want out of your life, your meaning and purpose, or life narrative, if you will.
If you can adopt an appreciative lens on yourself, your networks, the technology that you use and the media you consume and create — and you know what’s meaningful for you and what virtues you want to nurture in yourself and your communities — if you’re clear on those things, I think that the way media is going to will begin to resolve itself. But then again, I'm a learned optimist.
We're interested to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment below.
Meghan Keener is a positive psychology and media expert. She holds a master's in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in feature films and television for 12 years. Meghan also coaches and consults on human excellence, well-being, human and media interaction, and innovation. Follow Meghan @PosPsychology or visit www.alifeextraordinary.us.
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