The last time a raccoon hit global news, it was Conrad, the Toronto raccoon killed on the road (bear with me), which inspired a vigil in tribute. City services left the raccoon on the side of the road for so long that someone left a note and a rose by the body. Soon, a framed photograph of a raccoon popped up; a Sharpie was left to encourage written respects on a card; candles and flowers surrounded the corpse. The raccoon was named Conrad. Most people appreciated the offbeat humour in this; others complained that the raccoon was being “disrespected”, even though it had a better send-off than many humans.
But there can be no ambiguity over the heartwarming tale of what happened to the critter that became known as the MPR raccoon, which has captured the world’s attention over the past couple of days. MPR raccoon (named after Minnesota Public Radio) got stuck on a ledge. Raccoons, which tend to climb upwards when stressed, scaled 23 floors of an office building before getting tired and having a nap on a windowsill. Office workers, powerless behind their sealed-shut windows, took photographs of the raccoon, and cars the size of toys below, and discussed what to do to help.
Firefighters set a trap on the roof. Locals gathered under the tower, some brought binoculars. News agencies trained their cameras. But the light was fading. So too, was the raccoon, having not eaten or had a drink for over 24 hours. When darkness came, the raccoon changed tack, and slowly began to descend.
I couldn’t sleep. Paris couldn’t sleep. Berlin couldn’t sleep. It was difficult to see how this could end well for the MPR raccoon. It didn’t even matter that raccoons are quite vicious and troublesome animals which Americans frequently refer to as “trash pandas”. The concern was there. But after a night of tossing and turning, I awoke in the morning. And the raccoon had apparently reversed course again, and had … made it to the top, and to safety! Hurrah!
It was the good news story we all wanted, and needed. In this geopolitical quagmire we’re living through, there’s never been a greater need for some light relief. It’s why many make fun of Kim Jong-un’s hair, or Donald Trump’s for that matter. Some argue this trivialises issues we should take seriously, which is a point worth arguing, and why I tend to prefer raccoon intrigue.
Take Courtney Hadwin, the 13-year-old who wowed America’s Got Talent’s judges with her Joplinesque performance. I don’t even like those shows, but her audition was intensely pleasing. There is even something adorable about the Queen and Meghan Markle visiting Runcorn, the place every young Liverpudlian goes to test the dry ski slope.
At the NHS Confederation conference on Wednesday, boss Simon Stevens implored tech companies to do more to fight social media’s negative effect on young people’s mental health. On social media, and perhaps Twitter in particular, the growth in hate speech has been like a pernicious bindweed snuffing out civil debate. Then there’s the social pressures and bullying online. These elements need to be addressed. But good news stories, or even just amusing content, which can go viral on Facebook and Twitter in a matter of minutes, and its subsequent memefication, often has me laughing out loud. At the weekend, Holly Monson tweeted: “Well it was a nice lake day until my dog nearly drowned my sister”, and something about the perfectly chosen shots of her adorable retriever-cum-water-assassin made me howl. And 155,000 others.
Some stories aren’t necessarily “good news” stories, but offer an insight into the human condition which isn’t as bleak and despairing as we have come to expect. The London underground driver stopping his tube in tribute to the Grenfell victims and survivors; the woman who challenged a racist on a train; Mamoudou Gassama, the super-strong dude in Paris who climbed four storeys to save a toddler hanging from a balcony. Psychologists call the effect this has on us “elevation”, as even watching these altruistic or moral acts inspires us to do good ourselves. Jonathan Haidt says that elevation “motivates those who experience it to open up to, affiliate with, and assist others. Elevation makes an individual feel lifted up and optimistic about humanity.”
Studies have shown that positive news stories in general have a good effect on mental health. While, as you’d expect, negative news can make us more depressed and anxious. We also tend to seek out bad news because of our natural “negative bias”, which means we are more alert to stories that might detail a threat.
It’s clear from website traffic and social media engagement that plenty of people enjoy the lighter side of the internet – and no, that doesn’t mean that we’re are not paying attention to current affairs. All I know is that watching a live stream of people avoiding a puddle in Newcastle in various creative ways in 2016 (remember #DrummondPuddleWatch?) made it slightly easier to also deal with the fact that Islamic State was raging through Libya, and North Korea was, once again, testing its nuclear weapons on the same day.
As for the MPR raccoon. He has just been released back into the wild. Run free little dude. We’re all rooting for you.
• Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist