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News is the Last Thing We Need Right Now

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Forget about 2020 and its particular themes for a moment.

Imagine you lived in a small, relatively peaceful town somewhere, a thousand years ago. For the vast majority of each day, you’re focused on your immediate surroundings: your work and the people around you.

However, you do sometimes hear about events that happened elsewhere. The local butcher was reportedly robbed by thugs last night. A boy in another town fell into a well and drowned. Far to the east, fighting has broken out between two neighboring kingdoms.

You didn’t experience any these events, but you understand that they happened. It is unpleasant to hear such accounts, but you’re glad to know a bit more of what’s happening out there. You now watch for robbers when you visit the market. You tell your kids not to play near open wells. When you go to the tavern, you ask for updates on the foreign conflict, in case it worsens.

On top of its usefulness, there’s something gratifying about hearing a bit of news, even when it’s about unhappy events, and even though you’re not sure what you’ll do with some of this information.

Now, imagine you discovered a magic device –- a crystal ball — that informs you about many more of these sorts of unhappy events. On your first day with it, you learn about ten other violent robberies that happened in your region last night, twenty other tragic accidents, and a dozen other martial conflicts in the world.

These accounts are very compelling, because all of these events are serious. You don’t feel like you can do much about them, but ignoring these crises, now that you’re aware of them, seems callous. You go to bed thinking about robbers, and boys falling into wells.

Real news, fake world

After using this magic device for a while, a few hard realities may or may not dawn on you.

Firstly, regardless of the benefits of your crystal ball, you have become less happy since you acquired it. There’s tremendous suffering and injustice in the world, it turns out, and now you spend much more of your day thinking about it. 

Secondly, you have few real intentions of doing anything about most of this suffering and injustice, aside from constantly telling others about it, which makes them unhappy too. Even if you devoted yourself to helping wherever you could — which you do not, because you’re as busy as ever — you still absorb much more bad news than you could ever act on.

Thirdly, the world seems to have become a much worse place, and you have a much lower opinion of human beings. The world and its people have seemingly gone to hell, and you tell others that this is so. This worsening coincided exactly with your acquisition of the crystal ball.

When you think objectively about what has happened, you recognize that it’s your worldview that has changed, not the world. The crystal ball shows little but injustice and suffering –- if it also showed you unexceptional events, it would be as boring as real life, and you wouldn’t bother looking into it anymore.

However, such rational thoughts are no match for the intense emotions you have towards awful events, which you now witness and contemplate many times daily.

Thankfully, your peers recognize how lost you’ve become since you started gazing into the crystal ball. A good friend points out the source of your despair: it’s not that our world is an awful one, it’s that your device concentrates a world’s worth of awfulness into a potent tincture, which you drink throughout the day, claiming that it makes you “informed.”

You would be in grave danger, however, if everyone else had a crystal ball. Then, your peers would share your artificially bleakened worldview, and wouldn’t be able to bring you back to a sensible perspective. Everyone would be lost — absorbed in a false, nightmarish vision of the world, which is always worsening.

Consider the tragedy of that scenario. With everyone on steady doses of distilled misery, it would always seem like the worst time to be alive. The entire population could live and die believing they exist in the most miserable time and place ever, even if evidence indicates otherwise. This delusion could happen even to some of the safest and most advantaged people ever to live.

Stop drinking the hard stuff

This horrible scenario should sound familiar. I don’t have a slam-dunk solution, but I will make a simple suggestion: news is the last thing we need right now.

Yes, now. More news than you can act on, which is not very much, is essentially an open drain on your wellbeing.

We’ve all heard the ridiculous 19th-century retort that abstaining from news is “sticking your head in the sand,” as though industrialized news is some sort of clear air. When you consider the criteria under which news stories are selected, the news is more like a noxious cocktail made with the nastiest ingredients available that day.

Take a proper break from consuming a product made of distilled unhappiness, and to nobody’s surprise, you will feel better and get more done.

And nothing important will be lost. Any necessary information –- about local restrictions, government programs, statistics, and best health practices — can be looked up entirely away from news sources.

Try it for a month, and tell me if you think you’ve become a less responsible, less capable, less helpful human being.

I bet you will find the exact opposite.

***

[Related reading: Five Things You Notice When You Quit the News]

Photo by Marc Schulte

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SRINIVAS December 14, 2020 at 2:14 am

An apt article, specially now during the time of pandemic, when all you read, tweet is bad news !
Thanks for the same. Have decided to lay off twitter for a while !

Susie Adams December 14, 2020 at 8:37 am

Beautifully , thoughtfully written. Thank you for this opportunity for peace.

Liz C December 14, 2020 at 9:42 am

Thank goodness for this article. I’ve been saying to friends that I’ve become far happier since limiting my exposure to news. I’m no less empathic about suffering but I don’t need to hear the details of the misery 24 hours a day.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:28 am

Twitter has been the worst for me, I think because you end up getting a huge sampler of all the worst of humanity. It doesn’t take long to look at dozens of headlines and opinions, with each one affecting us emotionally. Twitter is probably the platform with the worst “useful information to emotional harm” ratio.

During the month of November, I didn’t look at it until 5pm almost every day, and I felt *drastically* better.

Mark December 15, 2020 at 6:42 am

100% agree! Thanks for your blog – just discovered it via link at Jacob Lund Fisker ERE. ;)
I came a little late to the Twitter “party”, logging on in 2016, but not really using it a lot until this year. I wanted to read and comment on all things election and pandemic related. It is truly a cesspool of vitriol. Your article will help me to forget about Twitter, starting today! Time to go for a walk and meditate…which will be better without having doom scrolled this morning! ;)

Bronnie December 14, 2020 at 2:16 am

Thank you so much for this. I’ve been trying to tell people this for years and I get dismissed or treated as if I must be a fool for wanting to minimize the amount of news I attend to. I really appreciate you writing down all the reasons that I haven’t necessarily articulated all that well. I will now be giving these paragraphs to anyone who doesn’t understand why I try to keep some boundaries between myself and “the news”.

Ron December 14, 2020 at 2:23 am

No doubt a good idea, but now?!? Can it wait till, say, Feb 1? At least Jan 20? Asking for a friend.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:31 am

It seems like the stretch between now and Jan 20 would be a perfect trial run :)

Sarah February 4, 2021 at 9:25 am

How incredibly useful this advice would have been had I found it sooner. I have been intentionally coming back to read this blog for many years now after your “88 Truths” post. Such measured wisdom. Thank you.

Donna December 14, 2020 at 2:35 am

I couldn’t agree more – I abruptly stopped listening to /watching news here in the UK on election night last December, broken hearted, and have not seen anything at all since then. At least I know my thoughts are mostly my own now, however neurotic they may be – and I take pleasure in rejecting the media manipulation that appalling governments depend on to rouse their fanbase. I discuss things with my fairly radical adult children and my very unradical elderly dogwalking friends, and don’t feel out of any particular loop. I judge less and reflect more, both positive things.

I wish you a serene and sunny Christmas, David, and a calm and happy New Year. Love from Donna x

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:34 am

Thanks Donna, you too. The manipulation aspect is a whole other bundle of harms, aside from just the subject matter issue I covered here. News media is agenda-driven, and it’s no secret who owns the news organizations. The idea that we’re fulfilling a civic duty by adopting their worldview is insane.

Bart Hordijk December 14, 2020 at 4:11 am

Good showcase of how the the biggest challenges of our time seem to be in how to deal with abundance, not with scarcity (abundance in food, hobby’s we could spent time on, careers we can pursue, potential people to date, etc.)

For me, there is a sense of asceticism involved in blocking out news and other external stimulations. It’s a vantage point of happiness; I’m already happy/ have everything I need and don’t need anything else to fulfill me.

Important message and great metaphor with the crystal ball, thanks!

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:37 am

Yes, exactly, it is a problem of managing excess, like so much else in the modern world. A little news is one thing, but the usefulness peaks early and a normal level of news consumption is waaay past that mark.

Mel December 14, 2020 at 4:16 am

Thank you for the timely reminder. I ignored the news successfully for years. But with the ever changing restrictions in Germany because of the pandemic I started checking the news on a daily basis since spring. Of course also consuming all non-pandemic bad news with it. I am really trying to work my way back to a news free life but the urge to check became quite intensive and is hard to overcome. Even though I know from my own experience that on the other side waits calmness and peace of mind…

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:39 am

That is an issue for sure these days. The pandemic requires us to stay informed on a small list of topics for practical purposes, namely the numbers in our region and the recommendations of health authorities. For the most part that information can be found outside the consumer news system, thankfully.

DiscoveredJoys December 14, 2020 at 4:17 am

It’s worse than that… because I can remember (just) when there was only one TV channel in the UK and only a handful of national newspapers. What was ‘news’ was faithfully reported because bandwidth was limited.

When ‘cable tv’ came to the UK a columnist wondered how the media would manage to fill all the channels. We now know the answer. They are filled with trivial ‘live’ TV and endless opinion about not very much news, seldom reported in depth.

And the ‘worse’ bit is that the media have settled into pandering to their audiences desires thus encouraging the polarisation into artificially separated ‘camps’… all for the sake of entertainment.

Luckily you can now use the internet to give you a curated view of local news and a few quality opinions of different viewpoints. How long that will continue, I don’t know. The main stream media are desperate to maintain their profits but seem unaware of how much they have trivialised their ‘profession’.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:42 am

Increased competition has definitely changed things for the worse. Advertising dollars have dropped to almost nothing, and so news organizations need to resort to increasingly clickbaity tactics. That is a big part of the polarization — they get no viewers unless they really try to hook your emotions, so they stoke populism, conspiracy theories, and partisan thinking.

I linked an excellent article by Oliver Burkman in the text above that examines this problem:

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/may/03/how-the-news-took-over-reality

Georges Brisset December 14, 2020 at 4:46 am

Agreed.

I consider the news is made for entertainment. There is no value in them.
As a principle, I try to stay away from information I do not act upon. News is only good to have something to talk about around the water cooler.

As David says, what you need to know can be acquired through other channels.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:44 am

I think the news is engaged with more as entertainment and stimulation than anything, it’s just based on real-life material (most of the time). We engage with it for emotional reasons and gain mostly emotional rewards, but it has a corrosive effect on our worldview, because the suffering involved in the stories is real.

Steven December 14, 2020 at 5:24 am

Hi. Lots of truth here, and I’ve been tempted more than once (to just turn off news and social media), but after reading this two times I found myself wondering how realistic it is. The key problem is in the first sentence: “a thousand years ago.” We’re in the 21st century, and if people choose to be “uninformed” they risk not merely being left behind but being blindsided by the effects of the next global trade deal or piece of disruptive technology to come along. I think many of Trump’s supporters voted for him four years ago because they believed he would restore the America they once knew, an America of relative economic stability, and not a place of constant disruptions and changes they did not sign off on. He did not, because he could not … he would have had to change the entire incentive structure built into global neoliberal capitalism, and that is beyond the capabilities of any one man not matter his position. Reimagining and then rebuilding places where that kind of life is possible for those who want it sounds desirable because obviously it’s healthier physically, mentally, and spiritually, but I’m at something of a loss how to go about it without building walls. Willing to discuss.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:53 am

Agreed, for the most part. Stepping away from the news is harder than ever, because it appears everywhere, at least if you use social media. And stepping away from social media is a difficult thing to do if your social circle depends on it.

There are clearly goings-on outside of our immediate surroundings that might prevent us from being blindsided. However, I think that can be addressed in a different way than the regular consumption of news media. If you’re a trucker, for example, you should probably keep tabs on the development of self-driving trucks, because it will affect your economic prospects. But monitoring a news feed isn’t an efficient way to do that.

Obviously we do need information, but there are many ways to get the information we intend to act on.

John December 14, 2020 at 6:50 am

Hi David,
I hope you’re doing well. Thanks for the post. It reminds me of a passage about Thomas Jefferson in How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking, by Dale Carnegie, where Jefferson is quoted as saying, “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much the happier.”

Carnegie adds, “Don’t you believe that you, by following Jefferson’s example at least to the extent of cutting your newspaper reading in half, would find yourself happier and wiser as the weeks go by? Aren’t you, at any rate, wiling to try it for a month, and to devote the time you have thus salvaged to the more enduring value of a good book?”

It reminded me of this, too, from the first chapter of The Power of Myth, the book edit of interviews with Joseph Campbell: “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that the university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where the news of the day did not impinge upon your attention to the inner life and to the magnificent human heritage we have in our great tradition – Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, Goethe, and others that speak of the eternal values that have to do with the centering of our lives.”

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 9:59 am

Thanks for this, John. Jefferson was way ahead of his time in terms of his hatred for newspapers.

These quotes speak to an important point: if you look to information and ideas that have withstood the centuries, you find universal wisdom in them that you won’t find in a newspaper. A newspaper deals with the ephemeral. The usefulness of its information fades quickly, if it had any to begin with.

Shannon D. December 14, 2020 at 6:53 am

I read this post first thing as I was eating my breakfast. You just saved me an hour of doom scrolling, a great reminder. Thank you! What a precious gift -time!

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:06 am

I recommend checking out this satirical doomscrolling site. It’s all doomy headlines, no details. Saves huge amounts of time.

https://endlessdoomscroller.com/

DiscoveredJoys December 14, 2020 at 10:35 am

It’s perhaps a reflection on the human spirit and modern life that ‘good news’ newspapers never last long.

Perhaps some kind soul will create endlessjoyscroller.com ? Although I fear there will be a lot of headlines about cats and kittens.

Elizabeth December 16, 2020 at 3:35 pm
Charisse Oveson December 14, 2020 at 7:02 am

So true. I feel 1000% better without news. I love the way you lay this out. Very relatable

Melanie December 14, 2020 at 7:27 am

Like someone commented before me, I stopped trying to keep up with the news but couldn’t articulate my reasons very well. At work, friends became used to me not knowing the latest…it was one more thing in a list of ways I was lacking. Fashion, music, movies, pop culture, politics, and then- news. I was never as aware as others, never up to date. In my near-ignorance I am, if not blissful, more content. It’s interesting that your scenario described a past when “news” wasn’t the norm in our daily lives. I often think about how someone would have historically dealt with things to help me make choices. When I decided to stop immersing myself in the news daily (it was primarily radio- I have rarely watched tv news or read the newspaper) I often thought about pioneers and settlers and how they just got on with creating a life and community for themselves and didn’t waste time hand-wringing over what was happening somewhere beyond their reach.
Since I find I am doing a poor job of explaining my thinking, I probably should have just left my comment as “ Exactly! Thank you for expressing my thoughts so well.”

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:08 am

I think it’s okay not to be able to articulate one’s news aversion. It can be perfectly obvious when something is bad for you, without being able to explain why to another person.

Elizabeth M. December 14, 2020 at 7:48 am

I’m really interested in the news — in politics, in Co-vid and vaccines and trying to figure out what is really going on versus what is being presented. Though I am Canadian, some of my favorite shows are UK topical comedy quiz shows. But there need to be limits on time and news sources, for mental health.

I’ve promised myself (even before reading this post) to take the next couple of weeks off from the news, and come the new year stay away from US news. But this is part of an overall attempt to reduce the toxicity of the content I am viewing. I unsubscribed a couple of weeks ago to a lot of YouTube channels that had become obsessively focused on prepper thinking and big-time money-making and spending. It has freed up media time for much more positive and entertaining content.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:13 am

That’s another thing — it’s become increasingly difficult to discern what is spin and what is information, and how an issue settles out morally. This year I started reading articles on multiple sides of certain social issues, and man what a trip that has been. I watched myself go from pro- to anti- and back over several issues, which revealed the powerful effect of framing on an issue. Aside from the corrosive effect of too much unhappy information, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening. Taking on the quest to get closer to the truth is a noble one, but it is very draining.

Elizabeth M. December 14, 2020 at 11:17 am

It has to be done on a small sample basis, for sure! It’s questlet, rather than a calling, for me.

Linda K-M December 14, 2020 at 7:53 am

I am reminded of the comment from an Inuit friend who had grown up in what was then Spence Bay, NWT. She said they got mail about once a year when she was a child, and that very little news really mattered when you seldom receive it.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:16 am

I experience a similar effect when I go on retreat. I turn of my phone and drop all connectivity for a week or more. When I turn it back on, I expect a flood of news and vital messages to catch up to. But there’s very little of it that seems important. It’s mostly organizations that don’t know me trying to get my attention in some way.

Rosalina December 14, 2020 at 7:57 am

Oh my God David, this is everything! I have been trying to get away from news lately and it seems impossible, because if I’m not checking social media, it comes to me in a Whatsapp group, which I check because it’s supposed to be about family updates. And yet, I’ve been feeling guilty about not checking the news constantly, but you are so right, NEWS IS THE LAST THING WE NEED RIGHT NOW.
Merry Christmas!!!!

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:17 am

Merry Christmas Rosalina! I think the guilt thing is really common. We’re told consuming news is a civic duty, and I think most of that message comes ultimately from news organizations.

Kevin Sodhi December 14, 2020 at 8:16 am

Good Morning David,

Agreed 100 percent. I gave up cable and TV 4 years ago. I do have Netflix and Hulu. I read and listen to music in the evenings. Life has become calm, with less stress and I am happier. It gives me time to enjoy life and smell the roses along the way.

Great post, Thanks for the reminder

Lazy Radish December 14, 2020 at 8:33 am

Great post, David!

I’ve been ignoring “the news” since summer 2019, only to be interrupted during the few weeks of the US election recently, because many articles covered a longer time-span, looking back and looking forward to about four years. I am now back to ignoring “the news”, and really nothing much has happened since. If it’s important, I’ll hear about out from friends, family, and colleagues.

Ginzo December 14, 2020 at 8:45 am

The propensity to see the ‘bad and threatening’ things is pre-programmed in our brains. Evolution says, ‘be vigilant for threat’. You cannot stop it any more than you can stop breathing or digestion. But once its seen for what it is, an alarm system; one can use this inborn tool wisely instead of it just driving us crazy.
As some said, ‘your brain doesn’t give a shit if your happy, it just wants what it wants’. So pushing it away or grasping at it doesn’t work. Its part of you as much as your heart or bones.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 10:21 am

I think this is the heart of it. News exploits our negativity bias, and the pervasiveness of the internet has allowed it unprecedented access to our brains. We need to defend ourselves.

Brian December 14, 2020 at 11:04 am

Another truism about the brain: the brain is always right . . . according to the brain.

Ana Krelling December 14, 2020 at 8:47 am

Thanks for the post, David. I have been actively limiting the amount of news I consume, specially since I realized I was in the middle of a challenging career change and beginning to question my reasons to even envision a future when the entire world was going to hell. So what you wrote does make sense. That being said, I wonder if the ability to move away from the news (or maybe some specific kind of news) shows how privileged we are – yes, myself included. For people of color, for example, it is important to know if there are bad things happening to people of color somewhere else (another country, another continent), so they can unite their voices and demand better treatment overall. For climate activists, it is important to know if there is something happening across the globe that has to do with their cause. I suppose these people wouldn’t be able to do anything about what happened, but that knowledge would help them strategize, to work on making things better. I believe the ‘relevant’ pieces of news in these cases would be about 5% of the total amount available, but you only know it’s there after you’ve gone through a reasonable amount of news – and of course, get sad about it.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:09 pm

I think regardless of a person’s personal investment in what is covered in the news, it remains true that it does no good to absorb more miserable news than one can act on. People can always seek information about what is important or relevant to them without having to “pan for gold” through news feeds.

Sarah Plumb December 14, 2020 at 9:04 am

So true, David. I’m appreciating my local health unit’s website. I can see how my community is doing with Covid cases without the constant misery in the news.

Linda December 14, 2020 at 9:12 am

My husband says I live with rose-colored gasses. I hate the news because it is so negative. I figure he will tell me if there is something I need to know. He watches it all day. I’m much happier and productive in my “rose-colored world”.

Nell Smith December 14, 2020 at 9:24 am

David I could not agree more with your words of wisdom. For the past 2 years I bypass any news online and / or on social media. Like you suggested… I get my own news / information when I want it or need it. I don’t need the mainstream media or social media to be shoving stuff in my face that they deem “newsworthy” which is fair from being newsworthy or truthful. Keep doing what you do… thank you!

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:12 pm

Newsworthiness is an interesting concept. We use the word to denote what’s worth discussing, but news organizations determine what is newsworthy by what generates revenue, which tends to be overwhelmingly negative. It’s not newsworthy when ordinary people do ordinary good things for other people, for example.

Linda M Shaw December 14, 2020 at 9:35 am

Hi David, what a wonderful thoughtful blog just when I needed it. I vacillate between absorbing “too much news” and wanted to avoid all news. I feel like my skin is raw and each new news is a poke or rub o sensitive skin. It hurts, it makes me more afraid, causes more pain, overwhelms the senses. I cry and cry and then I cry some more. I feel guilty if I can not comment on the newest article, and yet I am afraid to open the link. Keep up your thoughtful articles – be well, be safe. Linda

Tara December 14, 2020 at 9:39 am

I haven’t watched the news in years and wouldn’t even own a TV if it weren’t for my TV addicted husband. I have told him the first thing to leave this house if he dies first is that TV, it is nothing but an aggravating, depressing noise-maker. I figure if something important happens, someone will tell me. My time is spent on pursuits that are directly relevant to my life and the lives of my friends & family. I read books, watch youtube videos about things that interest me, and spend time in meditation. No time or interest for TV or other news feeds.

Kim Manley Ort December 14, 2020 at 9:45 am

This is beautifully written, David, and came at the perfect time for me, after a poor night’s sleep, feeling like a ball of anxiety. I do read too much news and I believe social media is a big part of it too. Yet, I’m a curious person and like to be somewhat informed. So, I’m trying to figure out the right balance. Limiting the amount of time on news is a first step for sure. Reading longer form articles and books I find helpful. And just getting outside for walks in the forest and seeing what’s going on right where you are.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Balance is difficult, because we do need, or at least desire, information in some form. I think a general rule of “reading; the longer the better” is a good heuristic.

Ashley Kung December 14, 2020 at 9:49 am

Thank you for this perspective, as someone who has felt the imagined pressure and responsibility to “stay informed.” I spent a little time thinking about what reading the news during the last four years has actually netted me. And all I can really come up with is: stress and negativity. Nothing good.

As 2020 draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next year. And now… I’m also going to think about what I DON’T want to do anymore. I only had one goal for this year, so maybe my “Not To Do” list will help me open up time to meet even more goals, and increase the value I can provide to myself, and to others. Top of the list: Stop watching/reading the news.

Thank you! :)

Michelle McGee December 14, 2020 at 9:49 am

Great pic and your words say it all for me. I, too, thought about living in a village many, many years ago and how I only would need to vaguely know about the ‘news’ of the larger world yet stay abreast of what’s happening locally (which I wouldn’t need to work at particularly hard since everyone loves to talk and ‘be the first’ to know and tell you). I stopped listening and watching news a year ago and what I actually need to know does manage to trickle into my ears. Thanks for this!! xoxo, Michelle

WesternWilson December 14, 2020 at 10:08 am

You are entirely right David, and the thing that really darkened my days was the Trump circus. I found that while I needed to follow that circus (because the threat to stable democracies was so potent), I also needed to limit my exposure. I didn’t need to check in daily with news sources, or read the comments sections. When I feel despairing, it is often from over-consuming upsetting news feeds: I try to focus on just “lighting my own small corner”. This year I chose two issues that mean most to me and did what I could to lend a hand…I wrote letters and made a donation to both those causes.

LB December 14, 2020 at 10:19 am

This, this this!!! So sick of news consumption being seen as a virtue when it’s actually a poison.

Réjean Lévesque December 14, 2020 at 10:26 am

Your article reminds me of a friend who was obsessed with following the news (which is rarely good). I would say to him, “You know, things happen even if you ignore that they happened.”
Thanks for your wisdom.

Peter Burton December 14, 2020 at 10:31 am

Thanks for this beautiful, timely encouragement to shake out our addiction to poison and celebrate the wonder of simplicity, of ordinariness where we can get clear about what and who is really important to us.
To pay attention to that which is within our true sphere of influence rather than fretting about the wider concerns about which we can do very little, or maybe nothing at all. Hooray!

Amanda December 14, 2020 at 10:33 am

News allows its viewers to feel like their lives really are not that bad. When you watch the network that aligns with your beliefs you then feel validated and superior towards those with opposing views in topics of all sorts. Both of these things however, put a person in a comparison mindset while giving space to the bigger problem which is “othering” people. It’s so much easier to judge or give an uneducated opinion about someone else’s life or situation when it’s on your tv screen. If it were your neighbor, family, friend, or someone in your community the reaction towards any situation would be wildly different. Great article. Well timed as usual

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:39 pm

This is another insidious part of the equation. Many of us have had the disappointing experience of reading a news piece on a subject or person we happen to know very well, and realizing that the reporting virtually always mischaracterizes what’s going on. Really understanding anything takes a long time, more than reporters are able to invest, and then they broadcast their superficial understanding to the masses, and myths become fact, good people become bad, and so on.

DiscoveredJoys December 14, 2020 at 10:43 am

… the many fine comments above confirm that we can see that happiness or contentment following from giving something up (in this case the news).

Yet in much of the developed world we are told (over and over) that happiness depends on ‘more’. More money, more news, more career success.

Perhaps we should start treating the main stream media as propaganda against our well being?

Cultivating More Happiness December 14, 2020 at 10:48 am

I totally agree!! I had been trying for months to cut back on my news intake for these exact reasons but it was surprisingly difficult. I just did two online meditation retreats spaced out only a week apart so it was a forced news detox. It has helped reset me a bit so now I am trying to moderate my intake (and only after doing my morning meditation, not the moment I wake up). It has been more doable after some extended breaks and noticing the benefits. Thanks again for your advice on online retreats- one of the silver linings of the pandemic! They are so much more accessible than going in person. Hope all is well!

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:44 pm

Heh, yes, online retreats are a true pandemic silver lining. Retreats have never been so accessible.

As far as out-of-retreat connectivity, what made a big difference for me was simple delaying the first moment in the day in which I browse the internet. I have it blocked for the first few hours of the day, so I don’t get any outside views until I’ve already done a good part of my day. This way it doesn’t set an emotional tone for the day.

Brian December 14, 2020 at 11:10 am

At first I started obsessively checking in to the Johns Hopkins site that monitors the number of Covid cases and deaths (no, I’m not providing the link!!!), sometimes two or three times a day. Then I decided that was helping neither me nor the pandemic and decided to go on a news fast. Not just Covid but everything. Guess what? I’m a lot happier and more relaxed, and the world hasn’t noticed that I’m ignoring it. The news I really need to hear gets to me anyway, from other who do pay attention. I now devote my attention to where I can make a difference, in providing medical care and directing a team of other doctors who can do the same. Ahhh, the relief!

Vilx- December 14, 2020 at 12:00 pm

I would like to agree, except for one nagging though that doesn’t let me go: isn’t ignoring Evil the same as condoning it? When you watch away and do nothing when one person hurts another, are you not indirectly responsible too? This message has also been repeated so many times – don’t stand aside, don’t be passive, don’t be… there was a word for it, but it escapes me now. Also there was a quote from somewhere, something along the lines of “All that is needed for the bad guys to win is for the good guys to do nothing”. And also “out of sight, out of mind” is always condoned as an awful, unethical strategy. So with that in mind, how can you justify turning away from all the horrors that you can see? Even if you can’t do anything about them, don’t you at least have a duty to feel sorry for those who are harmed? At the very least that?

So, yeah… these two viewpoints clash in my mind and I cannot tell, which one is right.

Vilx- December 14, 2020 at 12:03 pm

P.S. I just realized that I used “condone” twice with opposite meanings. Sorry, my English is pretty good, but still not my native tongue. I messed up. In the first case I meant “supporting evil”, and in the last one I meant “criticized as being awful”.

David Cain December 14, 2020 at 2:56 pm

You can make the Peter Singer drowning child argument that we always have an obligation to intervene in injustice, and it has some merit. But watching the news does not constitute intervening. So that isn’t a reason to watch the news.

In fact, watching the news gives a person a sense that they are participating in it, especially now that we can “like”, retweet, and share news stories. Yet this doesn’t really do anything either, though it might give a person the sense that they have done something good.

We will always struggle with questions of morality, like “Did I do enough?” “What are my obligations to other human beings?” but I think it’s safe to say watching the news does not in any way solve them. Even if you stopped consuming all media for the rest of your life, you are already aware of far more injustices than you could ever act in. Better to nix the news and put your time to use attending to refugee crises, domestic violence, drug addiction, or any of the thousand other tragedies we already know are happening.

Vilx- December 14, 2020 at 6:23 pm

I understand your point; and it was also made in the article; and it is, as I said, one of the two conflicting ideas in my head. Indeed – if you can’t do anything about it, why worry about it? You had an article about that too.

But on the other hand, putting it deliberately out of your mind feels… wrong? Like you’re saying – “OK, I’m choosing NOT to care about this problem. Those people? Screw them. They probably deserved it anyway. Good riddance.” That’s just… evil. It feels like I’m an asshole if I do that.

And this isn’t really so much about news, as “problems you can’t do anything about” in general. News is just a great source for problems that you can’t do anything about.

Lilly December 15, 2020 at 2:21 am

It’s like you’re taking the words out of my mouth. My perspective exactly, all it gives is a sense of “I have done something good” by liking or retweeting, now I know it was a way for my ego’s way to feeling happy or content without actually have taken any real action per se.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 9:42 am

@vilx

One reality we need to reckon with is that we have limited time and attention, and have to decide how to use it. I don’t really think we can choose not to care about what we care about, but we can choose where to direct our attention. It helps nobody to divide our attention into so many threads that none of our efforts are effective.

Unfortunately, normal use of online media is doing exactly that to us — pulling us emotionally in too many directions — and it is not only extremely painful, but extremely counterproductive. If you can focus well enough on one or two things that make a difference in people’s lives, you are doing more than if you are thinking about everything all the time.

It might “feel” wrong, but our emotions don’t track with morality. Emotions evolved in an environment with limited information, and if we were to use them as our only source of moral guidance, we would be much less helpful to others and ourselves.

Vilx- December 15, 2020 at 11:18 am

“It might “feel” wrong, but our emotions don’t track with morality.” — I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you say it, it’s obvious.

Heh, and yet it raises even more questions. It’s true, emotions are a poor choice for a moral compass, yet at the same time all of morality seems to based on emotions. More specifically, it seems to be aimed at maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. So… what IS the relationship between emotions and morality? I think this is getting too philosophical, and too confusing.

Steve Ice December 29, 2020 at 8:02 pm

It’s an interesting statement you make about emotions not tracking with our morality, as I would expect most evolutionary biologists researching the links between morals and emotions to argue the exact opposite. Of course, there are cases where emotions drive someone to do immoral things, but upon closer inspection, it’s always either that the moral code has changed and the emotion is tied to some outdated moral precept, or that the immoral action has some other evolutionary advantage, thus removing it from current moral considerations altogether.
And the craziest thing is that your statement doesn’t even make sense with regards to what Vilx was talking about. Vilx said that “putting [the problems] deliberately out of your mind feels wrong”. Your response was to say that what we feel does not track with what is good or bad, morally. You are saying that, from a moral perspective, putting the problems out of your mind is not wrong, morally, even though Vilx feels that it is wrong, morally. Somehow I don’t think that this is the right direction for Vilx to take in examining why what they feel is morally right does not match with what you’re telling them to do.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 11:30 am

@vilx

Here’s my take on emotions and morality.

Our morality is derived entirely from our evolution as a social species. We’re more likely to survive if we value things like fair division of resources, protecting the vulnerable, punishing the wicked, etc.

Emotions are much older than humans or any moral ideas we developed. They basically tell us whether to approach or avoid something. As morality entered the picture, we developed emotions towards different social situations. Unfairness or cruelty makes us angry, and inclined to say or do something, for example. But these intuitions are highly reactive — they are meant to create rapid responses to what is happening, to help us survive in a social environment, where trusting the wrong people could kill you. You might have noticed how reflexive our moral judgments are. We don’t wait for all the information to come in before decide what “feels” right or wrong. So serious morality requires us to take our own emotions in perspective and weigh the actual good and harm likely to stem from an action. It’s very challenging, because we’re so strongly inclined to go with the flow of our emotional reactions.

I’ve written about this here, and it’s all based on the work of Jonathan Haidt: https://www.raptitude.com/2018/04/why-the-other-side-wont-listen-to-reason/

Steve Ice December 30, 2020 at 8:28 am

While I understand how your attempt to divorce our morality from our emotions would work perfectly as an excuse for us to ignore our feelings when seeing bad things so that we don’t have to feel bad, your argument has a number of explicit and implicit premises which require support.
For instance, on what basis do you claim that our emotions are older than our morality?
When we look back at how our species evolved and our civilization developed, we see fairly clear indicators of how our morality was directly informed by our evolution as a species and development as a civilization.
It’s clear that we evolved to have certain emotions specifically to inform our actions in certain moral situations.
Picture an early human hunter-gatherer village/camp: If someone sees or hears about something bad happening, then by definition, it can only be in close proximity to them, in a sphere where they can actually exert influence to affect the situation, morally. Will they want to act to help the situation? Possibly. Will the empathetic reaction which they evolved to have towards their kind cause them to act to help the situation? Very likely, and demonstrably in the best interests of the tribe. That’s literally why they end up having such emotions – they evolved in circumstances where empathy and working together led to the success of the tribe. Evolution can’t expect primitive beings without large brains to understand the logic of why something is or isn’t morally acceptable or why we should work together to succeed, so it programs the animal to have an involuntary reaction to the situation that makes the animal act in a way which morally supports the tribe and helps it succeed. The tribe then succeeds because of it’s ability to work together which stems from the evolved emotions, and the genes which encode those reactions are propagated further and, over time, become stronger.
So the problem you seem to be describing is actually just that we have emotions which we evolved to help our kind and which were very useful for early civilization, but now our kind who we would like to help is much more physically removed from us that we end up tricking ourselves into believing that we can’t help them and then feel bad. Your solution? We must believe that our emotions have no valid connection to morality so that we can ignore our emotions and believe that to do so is okay, morally. Seriously, for a blog that is supposedly about becoming a better human, implying humanism, a lot of what you write seems to be more so geared towards helping privileged westerners people feel better about themselves internally, without any real humanistic impact.
So, instead of jumping through so many weird intellectual hoops to justify this very strange method of dealing with our guilt, why don’t we focus on what we know?
We know that:
1. For our civilization to succeed, we need to work together to find ways of solving the problems that are causing harm to members of our civilization.
2. We evolved with certain involuntary emotional reactions, the function of which is to drive us to work together so we can succeed.
3. Our civilization has succeeded to the point of being so spread out that there are great distances between those being hurt, and those wanting and able to help.
4. Those wanting to help are unable to find ways of helping that work for them and feed the evolved desire to help and, as a result, are stuck with the desire which ends up making them feel bad.

Steve Ice December 29, 2020 at 7:25 pm

“But watching the news does not constitute intervening. So that isn’t a reason to watch the
news.”
“I think it’s safe to say watching the news does not in any way solve [questions of morality].”
More trickery! Seriously dude, whoever, ever, said that anyone really thought that watching the news constitutes intervening, or that “feeling like you’re intervening” has ever been a reason to watch the news? Again I have to ask, whatever happened to thinking about the things you hear or see that are happening in the world, and then processing that information into whatever real action you can take to help if possible?

john roberts December 14, 2020 at 12:51 pm

not about what happens without, but consciousness within…………………conscious that we are created god’s very goodness an internal truth regardless of what we do or dont do, focus instead on our own very goodness within the living spirit of life lives throughout all creation. look at what ever news happens , but look at it thru your inner awareness……………you’ll be surprised how the context of news changes from hopelessness to hope.

KD December 14, 2020 at 1:31 pm

Loved this post. Have you ever read Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas? It’s a good one, and introduced me to the concept of participation mystique, in which a subject’s interaction with an object is what gives the object meaning. Without the subject’s consciousness, there is no object. This was the way our minds worked for thousands of years, until the relatively recent primacy of the mind and objectivity. Now we are certain there is an objective world outside of our (the subject’s) experience, but it has stripped objects of their inherent meaning in relation to us. I think we, as a civilization, still need to grapple with this change. We have one big case of FOMO and can’t tear ourselves away from the flood of “information” out there … there is always something more.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 10:34 am

I haven’t but it sounds like it’s about all my favorite topics: the primacy of consciousness, living in an environment we’re not well suited for, etc.

Julie December 14, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Thank you so much for writing this article. I honestly thought I was the only one who thought that the world is the worst. I am glad I never got on Twitter, mainly due to not wanting to figure out how to use it. Last week I decided not to use Instagram and felt much happier. I don’t watch the news channels, but do read the newspaper to stay informed. After reading your article, I remembered how much happier I was when I didn’t consume the news as I do now.

Bob December 14, 2020 at 2:26 pm

It’s called the information-action ratio.

Mike December 15, 2020 at 3:52 am

I guess lucky me, I never got that gratification from reading bad news. I never really suffered from FOMO. The good news to bad news ratio is way too low, always has been. Feeling very fortunate but also wonder why others punish themselves with reading that garbage, day in and day out.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 10:56 am

That’s a good question. I suppose there are a number of reasons. Many of us grow up with the idea that engagement with the news is part of what makes a person a responsible adult. People tend to equivocate “the world and what’s important” with the images on the news, when they’re not representative of the world as it is. There’s also the addictive nature of media, which is becoming increasingly obvious as we have a harder time getting away from it.

Bay December 15, 2020 at 7:18 am

I find that I *do* take action on some portion of the news I receive. For example, I sent dozens of postcards to Georgia voters to remind them to vote in the upcoming runoff election. I’ve made phone calls to senators. Et cetera. But I find that it’s rarely the news that is on TV that I act on. So I don’t watch the news on TV; I get my news from social media, verify that it’s accurate, and act on that. That way I get the big picture stuff like when we can expect a vaccine and what the latest precautions are and what’s going on with the elections (locally and nationally) without spending hours every day on minutia. I have to curate my feeds carefully to ensure I’m getting doses of goodness in between doses of news — pictures of newborn kittens, wholesome stories, updates on my friends’ lives. I find my twitter feed got away from me so that’s on small doses, while my facebook feed is much more tailored to my personal needs so I spend more time there.

Anyway, I guess I’m trying to say there’s alternatives between opting out entirely and being plugged-in 24/7 even if you spend a lot of your day on the internet.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 10:43 am

Sounds like you’ve found a way to navigate the news landscape in a healthy way. I agree that there are alternatives aside from the two extremes. I don’t think there is such thing as a complete opting out however. We are constantly taking in and using information, even if it’s just the goings-on at our workplaces or in our homes. The questions are about how much information do we need, what is it about, where do we get it from, and what we do with it.

Jacqui December 15, 2020 at 10:42 am

Challenging and timely post as usual, David. We are all struggling to find the right “balance” and this past year was even more difficult as our usual sources of human connections and information were limited. Of great concern to me is that this new model of [dis]information, manipulation and 24/7 noise will be the norm for our children and their children… The impact on their over-stimulated mental health, their ability to step back and assess what is newsworthy and their gut reactions to the never-ending bait-clicking content will be a huge problem to reverse. Some commenters have mentioned a conflict between limiting news in-take (self-preservation) vs feeling guilty (avoiding the world’s problems). I agree with you that our moral obligations can be refocused locally with greater personal & long-term societal benefits.
This is as good a time as any to unplug or if that’s too drastic, look to nature to balance the poison.

David Cain December 15, 2020 at 10:53 am

Definitely. I think the dichotomy between self-preservation and caring about the world is a false one. What I tried to say here is that “The World” as depicted in the news is not accurate, because the news reports only the worst things that happen. Attending more closely to that skewed image of the world isn’t a particularly helpful thing to do, in my opinion, but our culture tends to assume that it is the same thing. Unplugging from the news is simply using less of a product that has a lot of downsides and relatively few upsides.

Jack Gregoire December 15, 2020 at 2:47 pm

Hi David,

Thank you for writing what so many of us need to be thinking about right now. I’ve lost track of the number of friends and family members I’ve attempted to talk off the political or news edge of the cliff over the past several months. I will be sharing this piece a lot.

I began studying Stocism as a life philosophy years ago when my interest waned in organized religion. There is a particularly important area of Stoic belief that involves control. Put very if not over, simply, it involves the notion that there is little in our life we control beyond our own thoughts and how we react to circumstances around us. It took me considerable time, effort and study, but somehow I became free when I realized I didn’t need to have an opinion about everything and that anything beyond local news impacted my life very little if at all. Actual news is hard to come by and a wise person intent on consuming news learns to develop filters to sift the opinion from what is reported as news. Not long after I quit watching and listening to news, I tried to quit watching professional sports. Again, it was hard… almost akin to kicking an addiction I would imagine. The time I bought back for myself and my family for higher quality pursuits is enormous not to mention just the inner peace I’ve harvested from eliminating the need to opine, judge and persuade even if only my small inner circle of friends. I promise, twitter is not the news and neither is any other form of social media and if they were all suddenly gone tomorrow, it would only have a favorable impact on your mental health and physical well-being.

Peace to All,
Jack

David Cain December 16, 2020 at 9:54 am

Great comment Jack. Totally agreed.

Stoicism is as relevant as ever, because it is all about locus of control. As our awareness of what’s happening outside our control grows, we feel more and more overwhelmed. But all we can ever do, and need to do, is attend to our own locus of control. And there’s a lifetime of work to be done in that relatively small sphere.

Steve Ice December 29, 2020 at 8:37 pm

That is NOT what Stoicism is about!
At its core, Stoicism is about ethics and using your cognitive faculties to understand the world around you. It’s not an individualistic philosophy focusing only on self-discipline. It focuses on the social responsibility of loving one’s neighbour, forming virtuous relationships, and helping others.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism#Ethics

Steve Ice December 16, 2020 at 7:49 am

I guess if you allow yourselves to be tricked into believing that it’s not possible, or worthwhile to your own personal well-being, to try to solve the problems you see on the news, then it definitely is better to stick your heads in the sand.

David Cain December 16, 2020 at 9:46 am

I don’t think anyone said that. And who’s tricking who?

There are several false equivocations in the pro-news perspective:

Not watching news = not caring about events depicted in the news

Watching news = helping people affected by events depicted in the news

News = Accurate representation of how the world really is

Ignoring news = Ignoring the world

These are unexamined beliefs, which come directly from news organizations and the culture surrounding the consumption of their products. You don’t need to consume daily news in order to act on important moral causes, if that’s what it’s really about. You could fill your schedule for a lifetime just responding to a single issue. Browsing the horror show of the news every day is neither necessary or sufficient for changing the world, but it might give you a false sense that you already are.

Steve Ice December 28, 2020 at 11:12 am

Oh, we trick ourselves, we trick each other, “they” trick us, you trick us, it’s everywhere. And the more subtly the tricks are written, the easier it is for us to get tricked. Tricked into believing nonsense like “we absorb news so that we can physically act on every single bad story”, and “we absorb news so that we can form our worldview and an opinion of human beings in general”. Whatever happened to absorbing the news and then actually thinking about it, instead of just main-lining it into an emotional response? God, I miss those days.
I make no claims regarding what watching or not watching news actually means, and I don’t think you should, either – at least not without support.
“Do you really believe news is likely to generate a clear perspective on how the world is?”
If the consumer is able to think about it and rationally consider its implications, then yes. Again I have to point out the problem with saying that what we see on the news is what our perspective of the world should be, without any further consideration. You should be telling people how better to think about, process, sort out, and handle and deal with what they see going on, instead of furthering the ridiculous idea that the world they see on the news is the real world and if they don’t like it it’s then okay for them to ignore it. Your solution is basically nothing more than the pill they give the child after he becomes sad that his best friend moved away, instead of talking to the child and teaching him how to process and deal with his emotions.
“Everyone already has more opportunities than they intend to use.”
Opportunities existing and people being aware of them are not the same thing. The opportunities which are often the easiest/simplest for someone to implement in their “busy as ever” lives are unfortunately also the easiest to miss. Even if it’s something really small, it could be just the thing that allows someone to get involved and be part of the community making a difference.

Steve Ice December 29, 2020 at 7:47 pm

“I don’t think anyone said that.”
So since you asked, then you really need to take a closer look at the comments here. We have phrases like:
– even if you can’t do anything about them, don’t you at least have a duty to feel sorry
and
– if you can’t do anything about it, why worry about it
And even some of your own statements forward such a conclusion (“Secondly, you have few real intentions of doing anything”).
So people are making this sentiment while engaging in discussions about your writing, which also makes the same sentiment. Trickery! In any case, more and more it seems to be demonstrated (thanks @Bay) that, instead of deciding to knee-jerk ignore what’s happening outside as a solution to our westerner guilt, it IS possible for us to take the time to find some way of helping that works for us and allows us to be part of the solution and as a result we don’t get bogged down by the deluge of bad news.

Steve Ice December 16, 2020 at 7:55 am

Another downside of living in a filtered bubble reality:
You miss seeing all the small opportunities where you might be able to actually do some good.

David Cain December 16, 2020 at 9:59 am

Again, where is the filter? Do you really believe news — which selects its content based on whatever gets people to consume more of it — is likely to generate a clear perspective on how the world is?

Opportunities to do good aren’t some rare thing only found on the news. Everyone already has more opportunities than they intend to use.

Angeline December 16, 2020 at 9:42 am

I totally agree with you. I stopped watching the news like 6 months ago, I’ve been outdated with some events but it didn’t make me irresponsible or lousy citizen.

Alan Duncan December 17, 2020 at 5:55 am

David – I keep coming to this same conclusion. And yet I keep getting drawn back into it. I think it’s worth looking not only at why steady consumption of news and social recycling of it is bad for us, but why it is that we can get pulled back into it.

I think the well-meaning among us are all just trying to bring some more justice into the world but at the same time are stymied by the inefficacy of doing it through news consumption, social media posting and the like.

Maybe it’s a problem of scope. Our sphere of influence is so small relative to the sphere of interest of national/international news. Maybe it’s a matter of matching our sphere of interest to our sphere of ability…

Thanks for the post. Your writing is inspiring to a lot of folks out here.

David Cain December 17, 2020 at 10:04 am

Good point, and I think you’re totally right. I think it’s a matter of scope more than anything, and I tried to illuminate this in the post. Our ability to intervene has not scaled with our rapidly expanding awareness of bad events, so we feel angrier and more judgmental without being any more helpful.

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