Prior to medical school I became interested in ‘alternative medicine’. This was a rather loose term that basically included anything that was not traditional medicine or generally taught in a typical western medical school. I picked up a book and actually went to a lecture by this guy Dr. Andrew Weil, a jovial Harvard trained physician who kind of looked a little like Santa Claus. He had some interesting ideas, a few that sounded crazy, but perhaps the most fascinating to me was the concept of the ‘news fast’. Basically he advocated taking intermittent breaks or fasts from news with the idea that constant exposure to news creates stress, therefore lowering the effectiveness of our immune system and leading to a greater propensity for disease.
I kind of blew it off along with most of the other things in the book until years later, when a cascade of events rekindled the idea. Enter the economic crisis of 2009. I was entering a period of maximum work related stress and burn-out just about the time I was simultaneously watching 30% of my wealth evaporate. I was seeing a slow down or actual reversal of my work volume which I figured would probably translate to a lower income. I was consuming countless news stories about the end of financial systems as we know it. Peak oil was threatening to end civilization, politicians were never more partisan*, danger was everywhere. I consumed this negative news with the zeal of a heroin addict looking for his next fix. I was checking the stock market and spot gold prices daily. I ordered a three month supply of Dungeons & Dragons style iron rations which would feed my family through the inevitable disruption of social order.
I felt terrible all the time. I was worried and anxious; the stress felt like a thick fog everywhere I went. Maybe I really was safer, but it sure didn’t feel that way.
Then I just stopped and paused.
Some part of me dug way back to the idea of Dr. Weil’s news fast and I asked myself two important questions. Was my consumption of news helping or hurting me? Was any of it actionable?
Answer: It was absolutely hurting me. Little, if any of it was actionable. In fact, looking back in the rear view mirror, consumption of news has hurt me in the aggregate. It has led to poor decision making. Overall it has been destructive to my emotional health and taken time from more productive activities…and it is doing the same to you.
I know what you are thinking. One minute you are reading a blog about some other dudes problems, and then this same dude points his finger at you and calls you out. I can hear the steam coming out of your ears but I stand behind this bold statement. I have eliminated almost all news from my life and I have only noticed positive changes. I have challenged many people to do the same and not one single person said they missed it. No one felt more stressed out. All reported increased happiness.
So why am I so confident that news should play almost no role in your life?
- News is not information: It is entertainment. News organizations survive by keeping your eyes glued their program/article/etc. so you will watch advertisements, which they sell based on viewership. They choose and produce stories not to inform you, but to keep you watching. Because we are entertained by things that tell us a story that align with our values, we end up consuming news that confirms what we already believe, which leads to confirmation bias. It is not ‘fair and balanced’. It is not ‘clear and accurate’ or whatever ridiculous tagline some smug executive thought up. It is entertaining, stressful misinformation.
- News is not actionable: Try and think of the last time you made a positive life change based a news story. It is difficult task for most people because this is almost never the case. News will, however, cause you to make negative life decisions because it causes…
- Stress and fear: News stories are overwhelmingly alarming and scary (see number 1) because this is what keeps people watching. Constant exposure to news puts up in a state of chronic stress where our neuroendocrine system releases stress hormones (ie: cortisol) which in turn leads to lowered functioning of the immune system, and higher levels of chronic stress, depression and anxiety. In case you were not clear on this, we tend to make poorer decisions where we are anxious and depressed.
- News wastes time: Watching news takes time away from other more productive uses of time such as connecting with people or consuming actual useful information (more on this later).
- News is often wrong: That’s right, you heard me. I’ll repeat it for those of you who fell off your chair and are just getting back to the computer screen. News is often wrong. And they don’t care. Accuracy is not their objective. Selling advertising is their objective. Keeping you watching is their objective. You will be chronically misinformed if you watch news.
- News distorts perception of risk: By objective measures, the world is generally a safer place today than it has ever been at any time in human history, especially in the United States and other western liberal democracies. But using news as a barometer, no rational person would believe this. Tragedy is reported constantly on multiple channels, and multiple mediums. There is no shortage of horror. This is a clever illusion. There are not more evil deeds in the world, there is simply more news in the world. I’ll let you scour the internet for the epidemiology of crime, war, poverty and misery. Just make sure you don’t self-select only the studies that confirm your preexisting bias as we often do.
The biggest question I’m asked when I challenge people to cut out the news is this:
How will I know what’s going on in the world?
Good question. My response:
- Why do you accept the narrative you NEED to know what’s going on in the world?
- What are you going to do with all of this information? (Hint: Nothing; or maybe post on Facebook first, act outraged…and then do nothing).
- You will get the really important information because everyone else will be talking about it. The 1% that is necessary will filter to you. Let other people abuse their adrenal glands for you and relay the really important stuff.
- Books. Seriously, just read books for information, they are such a better use of your time and a cleaner source of information.
Grey is the New Black
When ideas are so ubiquitous in society, we tend to accept them to be true without questioning. Everyone should get an education, voting matters, the religious beliefs your parents taught you are true and everyone else’s in the world are false, owning a house is always better than renting, patriotism is good for society, and knowing what is going on in the world is my duty. Ask yourself if you believe these things to be true? Are they true or are they beliefs? Are they true or just a story you have been told since you first started comprehending language?
Start questioning everything.
There are probably some relative truths and rational guidelines to follow, but there are less of these than you think. When your mindset changes in this matter the world becomes a much more exciting and interesting place.
Another common complaint I hear is:
But I need to know the issues so I can vote and be a good citizen like they taught me in school!
Do you want to know how to vote? First don’t read a single thing generated by the candidate or their political party. Don’t watch any debates, don’t listen to any interviews. Don’t watch the news. It is all either outright lies or distortion of truth. They are all narcissists and habitual liars – all of them. This does not mean some of them won’t be good leaders. But, if you really want to know if you should vote for a candidate look at their voting record and read books or deep articles others have written about them from different sides of the political spectrum. If a book is overly inflammatory or praising, throw it away, it is useless.
Plus there is a good chance you have already made your decision. Lets be honest with ourselves here. It should take about 10 minutes to decide who to vote for, not 100 hours of analysis that’s based on lies and distortion.
Leap of Faith
Do a 30 day experiment. Stop consuming news for one month. You will not miss it. The world will not end. Nothing will chance except you. You will be happier. You will feel more peace and serenity in your life.
I’ve eliminated 99% of news from my life and have seen only positive changes. Occasionally I will catch a few minutes in the doctor’s lounge while eating lunch as a few zombified colleagues stare blankly at the television screen. None of them smile while watching. None of them gain any useful information. Sometimes they mumble incoherently about ‘getting out of the market’ or slip into a political diatribe about how some such candidate is going to ruin the country if elected. The curious thing is everyone has a different opinion on which side the political demon is.
What to do with all that free time?
Read books instead. I left this habit for years during my medical training (aside from medical texts of course) and a short time afterwards, and my intellectual and spiritual growth was halted. A good book is like peering into someone’s brain and getting all of their best ideas. They are nearly free and are still the best way to learn a topic. Through the relentless advancement of technology these are mostly available in both electronic and audio format as well. Often times you can hear the book read by the author herself, for mere pennies.
In case you missed my last two posts on ducluttering they are here and here. You may have noticed this is an important theme of mine. Getting rid of things from your life is much more important than adding things to your life. Subtracting the negative usually has more impact from trying to add more positive. This is such an important concept to understand. You should only start adding things to your life when all the negative crap is gone. The news fast or low information diet or whatever you want to call it is just another tool in this relentless decluttering process.
News is toxic, mostly unactionable, biased and inaccurate entertainment.
Stop consuming it. You will thank me.
*This is most certainly untrue, but it sure feels that way. I wonder if news has anything to do with this.