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News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier
News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.
News misleads. Take the following event (borrowed from Nassim Taleb). A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce. News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.
We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.
News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.
News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand. If more information leads to higher economic success, we’d expect journalists to be at the top of the pyramid. That’s not the case.
News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.
News increases cognitive errors. News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this flaw. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities. It also exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. Any journalist who writes, “The market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world.
News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.
News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?
News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.
News kills creativity. Finally, things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.
Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.
I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
This is an edited extract from an essay first published at dobelli.com. The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli is published by Sceptre.
“When will you have a little pity for every soft thing that walks through the world, yourself included?” Mary Oliver
On the bitter winter ground
I found a small grey titmouse
With a broken wing.
As I stopped to consider
How I might help her,
It became apparent
That something else
Was also broken inside her,
And that she was dying.
It is the way of the world,
One animal will eat another animal,
And all animals,
(Including the human kind),
Eventually go back into the earth.
I could not leave her there,
To die alone in the snow.
I cradled her in my mittened hands
And warmed her with my breath,
Trying to make her
As comfortable as possible.
I hummed to her
And breathed a silent prayer
To the god of snow and spring
and small birds.
After a while, her eyes drifted closed.
She did not struggle or appear afraid.
She was beyond that now,
She was just infinitely tired
In the way that things
Approaching a great mystery
Are often wise.
From A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays
by Carrie Newcomer
What I See is the Light Falling All Around Us
To have understood some small piece of the world more deeply doesn’t have to mean we’re not as lost as before, or so it seems this morning, random bees stirring among the dogwood blossoms, a few here and there stirring differently, somehow, more like resisting stillness. . . Should it come to winnowing my addictions, I’d hold on hardest, I’m pretty sure, to mystery, though just yesterday, a perfect stranger was so insistent that I looked familiar, it seemed easier in the end to agree we must know each other.
To his body, a muscularity both at odds and at one with how fragile everything else about him, I thought, would be, if I could see inside. What’s the word for the kind of loneliness that can feel like swimming unassisted in a foreign language, for the very first time?
— Carl Phillips
“Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.
The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” ” – Barbara Ehrenreich
“Sometimes I think the world is divided into 2 kinds of people…Those who divide the world into 2 kinds of people and those who don’t.”-Gloria Steinem at 6th & I Synagogue
Up and at ’em. These resolutions aren’t going to break themselves.
In the summer of the same year that Jim left on Mother’s Day weekend, a guy from work actually showed a little interest in me which made me feel nice and yes, worthy of someone’s love. Although I didn’t go out with him except for lunch, he gave me a picture to hang in my house with this poem on it. It, in part, saved my life.
After a while you learn the subtle difference
between holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t always mean security.
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
and you begin to accept
with your head up
and your eyes ahead
with the grace of woman,
not the grief of a child
And you learn to build
all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground
is too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way
of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.
And you learn
that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn…
Another take on the same words…
Then After “after a while” you change and build your hopes again. And pray that maybe this time it will be different. And you hold on to that hope because in the end that’s all you really have..
AFTER “AFTER A WHILE”
After ‘after a while’
You want to hold a hand not to chain a soul but
to enjoy its company,
and you want someone’s lips to kiss,
not because you are lonely but because you are
happy, and you want to give presents
and you want to make promises.
After ‘after a while’
You begin to accept your defeats like an adult,
but like a child, will want someone to listen
and you want someone who will build roads with
you today so maybe you can pave the way for your
After ‘after a while’
You want someone’s sunshine and warmth,
but also accept the rain and the cold,
and you want to give flowers picked from your
And when your garden is picture perfect,
you want it to be more than a picture
even if it means having to be imperfect
because you want someone in it to stay and to
Then you’ll see that there is
such a thing as love…
and that you were made to live in someone else’s
and you’ll know that there is more to life than
and finally, this take on it now…
You realize that no matter how tightly you hold,
if you’re meant to let go, you can
And then you will understand that love
gives you reasons to understand
even the most complicated situations
And you will grow older believing that just
because you have convictions
doesn’t mean you’re always right
You will remember lips because of the smiles
that made your day,
the words that touched your soul, not only
because of the sweet kisses
And as you graciously accept defeat and absorb
the meaning of lessons
You feel that you are finally being the person
you never thought you’d be
So, armed with courage, strength and confidence,
you will face the world
With or without an army behind you
Because you know your worth and that alone is an
You Broke It, You Won It
“To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked.” That’s from Matt Yglesias in a post he published yesterday evening before the scope of the GOP victory became fully clear. This is succinct and it is correct.
Indeed, in key respects it worked in 2010. By many measures Republicans should have won the Senate in 2010 and 2012. But each year they were hobbled by a raft of crazy and indisciplined senate candidates who squandered what should have been easy or at least odds-on wins. This year, the terrain was heavily weighted in their favor. And they kept their candidates on the straight and narrow.
But if this was the plan (and it was) and if it worked (which it did) we should ask, why?
We’re hearing that President Obama was poor at messaging and keeping his voters involved and invested, that Dems aren’t tough or combated enough or didn’t stick together enough. All of these are true to some degree. But it doesn’t explain why they are true or why the Democrats don’t seem to be able to do the same sort of thing.
I think there are two answers, the first of which is more relevant at the moment. That is that it is much easier to break the government and reap the benefits of doing so if you are not the party of government. This is obvious when you put it this way. But it’s worth considering what a central reality this is.
We should also remember that this is exactly what Republicans did in 1993 and 1994. The script was identical. The difference is actually a good one for Democrats in that they got a lot more accomplished in 2009-10 than the more entrenched Democratic majority of 1993-94. Still, the strategy was identical and it had a similar result – the difference being needing three cycles to finally grab the Senate.
The second point is that the Democratic party has a different structure from the Republican party. Both are coalitions. Big national parties have to be. But the Democratic party is a more disparate coalition. The base of the GOP has long been more coherent. And that makes the primary-ing mania that helps keep the GOP so unified on Capitol Hill possible.
None of this is meant as a counsel of despair. I think the Democratic party’s future is bright. More importantly I think its central goals remain in the ascendent. But addressing the shortcomings I noted above must happen by treating these realities as the starting point of the discussion, accepting them. They cannot be ignored.