Staying Informed without Being Miserable

It’s tough to face the news these days. Do I need to choose between staying informed and being happy? I know I’m not the only one asking these questions. In a recent interview with GQ Magazine, comedian and actor Aziz Ansari had this to say:

I don’t think me reading the news is helping anything. I think it’s hurting me. It’s putting me in a bad state of mind. And I could see how someone could hear that about me and be like, Oh, you’re ignoring what’s happening in the world ’cause you don’t want negativity in your head. That seems very selfish. Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s not like I was reading it and then, like, immediately taking action in a way that was helping to fix problems. I can still cut checks without reading the articles. I cut my checks, man!

I’ve been trying to solve my “the news is making me miserable” problem, but in order to do that, I need to talk about social media.

Addicted to Stress

Did you know that apps on your smartphone can be as addictive as a slot machine? Or that having unread emails waiting for you can temporarily lower your IQ? Whenever we get into the mode of clicking-to-see-what’s-there, we get not only dopamine (the feel-good hormone) but the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).

In other words, the way we consume information can create a chemical reaction where we get addicted to the feeling of being stressed out.

In his book The Organized Mind, Professor Daniel Levitin describes this dynamic, and he describes email, Facebook, and Twitter checking as a “neural addiction.” And beyond the addictive-yet-stressful impact of social media and apps, our tendency to repeatedly dip into this content can also wear us out, and make us less able to make intelligent decisions:

“Our brains do have the ability to process the information we take in, but at a cost: We can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired. Neurons are living cells with a metabolism they need oxygen and glucose to survive and when they’ve been working hard, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

The science matches up with how I’ve been feeling lately. Even when my phone is sitting idly in my purse or pocket, I can feel it draining my energy like a tiny electronic vampire.

A vampire I can’t quite live without.

Staying Informed without Being Miserable

Our political situation in America is scary, and when I engage with the news and related commentary online, I feel pretty hopeless. Social media can be addictive, and the result is that I find myself repeatedly sticking my head into the negativity-tornado that is the internet. In fact, for a while, I considered giving up my smartphone entirely. And I’d trade my iPhone for a flip phone in a hot second, except that I’ve grown dependent on services like maps, and translation apps, and instant messaging. Like it or not, social media has become the new connective tissue of our relationships, replacing things like potlucks and letters and long telephone calls.

I don’t think I can quit the internet without massively disrupting my life. And besides, I don’t think it’s responsible to withdraw myself from the reality of the news. If our country is in trouble, this requires more vigilance, not less. Therefore, what should I do?

Experiment #1: Stop Getting News from Social Media

Here’s a thought: While Facebook and Twitter offer extensive commentary about the news, in the form of editorials, reactions, and comments, those things are not actually news. Mostly what I see shared via social media are bits of information that reinforce my own views, highly emotional reactions, and predictions of imminent doom.

 

Online commentary can be terrible, and reading it can have a lasting impact on how I feel about the world. As an example, I recently saw a tweet from a frightened man who had floodwaters rising in his office as a result of hurricane Harvey. Here was one of the replies he received:

I sat there for a few minutes, trying to understand how this person could square her soul with the idea of scoring political points off of a disaster victim. And even though I don’t know either party, and I cannot control how other people behave, I felt sad and sick for hours. Perhaps I’m sensitive, but it’s difficult for me not to be impacted by these interactions, when I read them. (PS: The man escaped; he’s fine.)

Intellectually, I know the wisest thing for me to do in these situations is to focus on what I can control. Namely, my own behavior and my own responses. But when social media becomes a moral-sewer, it’s difficult to be wise. I find myself getting emotional, simply by watching.

That’s why I’ve been hiding as much commentary as I can from my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I do read the news, from sources I trust, like the Washington Post, the Economist, PBS Newshour, and some clips from NPR. I follow my congressional representatives, and a couple nonprofits that offer specific suggestions for activism, but I’m picky.

Strategies:

  1. On Facebook, hide sources of commentary.
  2. If I run across an interesting article, go directly to the source.
  3. Don’t read comments.
  4. On Twitter, use keyword muting to remove tweets with political content. Examples: trump, democrat, republican, terrorist, north korea, charlottesville.
  5. Read/watch the news from actual journalists.
  6. Ask myself, in response to the news, “What actions are within my control?”
  7. Take action, as appropriate.

Experiment #2: Don’t Blame Social Media for Crappy Behavior

Let’s talk about the “Racist Aunt Jan” problem. Because wasn’t life so much easier when we didn’t know what some of our beloved friends and relatives were thinking? Social media makes it easy to see the bigotry and meanness of other people, and whenever I see bad behavior online from people I know, it majorly stresses me out.

I think:“Wow. If *that’s* the way you think, I don’t really want to be around you!” And then I feel depressed, because I grieve the divide.

Ultimately, I’ve decided it’s unfair to blame social media for individual behaviors. Instead of getting my panties in a twist, I need to decide what my response is, and act. That can mean having a conversation (offline) about why a person said what they did, or hiding and blocking them online, or even stepping away from them in the real world.

These decisions are painful, but instead of getting upset about bad behavior I simply need to girl-up and do what’s right, in a case-by-case way.

Experiment #3: Make Social Media Harder to Access

Because “checking social media” can be an addictive behavior. I’ve been looking for ways to break that connection, without getting offline entirely. Because I love seeing my friends’ vacation photos and poems and quirky tweets. But this can easily be accomplished with only occasional check-ins. Here are a few things I’ve done to break my smartphone addiction:

I uninstalled Facebook and Twitter, meaning if I want to log on from my phone, I need to use the mobile site. That’s easy to do, but it takes a few steps, so it keeps me from mindlessly clicking. I also turned off all my notifications except for certain email notifications. If you message me directly, I’ll get an email so I know about it.

I also made my phone less visually appealing by flipping it to grayscale. It’s surprisingly powerful! And lastly I moved almost all of my apps into a single folder, away from my home screen. If I want to find an app, I need to pull up the search bar and type in the app’s name.

In case you’re curious, my home screen has seven apps available: Settings, Camera, Calls, Texts, and Alarm Clock. Also my food tracker, and Scrivener, which I use for writing.

I’m going to call this experiment a success, because I am spending less time on social media than I used to, and after an adjustment period, I don’t miss it.

Strategies:

1. I uninstalled my Twitter and Facebook apps.
2. I turned off all notifications.
3. I switched my iPhone to grayscale.
5. I stuck (almost) all my apps in a folder.

Experiment 4: Reclaiming My Downtime

Here’s another quote from Mr. Ansari, which sums up another issue I have with social media, and the news.

“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore. When I first took the browser off my phone, I’m like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up? But most of the shit you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you’re in a cab, you don’t need to look at any of that stuff. It’s better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there’s a new thing.”

He’s talking about one of my worst habits! When I get bored, or there’s a little gap in my day, I pop online and start looking for a new thing. It’s a novelty-seeking behavior that prevents me from doing things like relaxing, observing, and thinking. Do you remember that mental-space we all used to have, back before we had a pocket-vampire that constantly demanded attention?

For my fourth experiment, I’ve been turning my phone entirely OFF for several hours out of the day. When P and I go for a walk, the phone goes off. When I’m working on a project, it goes off again. Yes, it means I sometimes take a day to get back to people, but I can live with that. I don’t need to be at the beck and call of my phone; nor do I require constant information-stimulation.

It feels good to turn my phone now and again; it’s freeing!

“If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

As I step back from social media, I feel guilty, like I’m shirking my duty. The rallying cry of the left goes something like this: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

And sure, there’s plenty to be outraged about! Our boorish idiot President, and the nazis marching in American cities, and the constant assault on our fundamental freedoms and values, to name the biggies. But as tempting as outrage can be, I don’t think it’s helpful. But outrage has become the norm, to the point where shouting angry things on Twitter is mistaken for activism.

We find ourselves in a messy situation. The addictive nature of social-media, coupled with our social unrest, combined with the human tendency to choose anger over reason… it’s all boiling over lately. And in times like these, it’s tempting to move towards the extremes. You can plug into the outrage and be one with the activists, or you can withdraw from the world and preserve your emotional peace. In the end, you’ve got two choices. You feel outraged, or you don’t pay attention. Pick one, dammit!

That’s the party line, but I think it’s bullshit. Because what if we cared about what’s happening, without wallowing in outrage, anger, and despair? The rational-middle isn’t very popular these days, but I think it’s where I’d like to be.

Wow. You’ve survived my longest and most rambly post ever. Huzzah! I’ll summarize my suggestions for staying informed, without being miserable:

  1. Stay informed, by checking-in with primary sources of journalism. (I’ll suggest once per week.)
  2. Take action when you can. Donate a few bucks. Show up for an important march. Vote well. Educate others.
  3. Treat social media like candy. A little bit isn’t gonna kill you, but eat it three times a day and you’ll rot from the inside out.
  4. Reject the notion that you must be an angry person to be a good person. Don’t be a dick! And refuse to spend your free time around mean people, online or in real life.
  5. Turn off your phone on a regular basis. FREEEEEEEDOM BABY!

Whew. This is a lot of work, isn’t it? It feels like a lot of work, but perhaps that’s okay.

If you’ve got anything to add on this topic, drop me a comment. 🙂

Thanks for weighing in! Comments may be held for moderation.

2 thoughts on “Staying Informed without Being Miserable

  1. As John Prine wisely suggested, “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper …” Television journalism is to journalism as television personality is to personality. Get your news from the BBC or CBC and ignore the American corporate info-heroin. As for anti-social media, I’ve learned not to friend too many people. I alienate the Trumplings and Xtians with my occasional neo-Marxist political posts just as they alienate me with their fascist drooling – it all balances out in the end. But that phone … No Twitter, no Facebook, no LinkedIn. And no EMail. My Droid is my friend, as long as she doesn’t piss me off. The laptop is too heavy to throw in the river, so all the digital effluvia is restricted to a Windows environment, where it fits right in.

    Anger is not a bad thing. During WWII, over 16 million Americans served in uniform and over 400,000 died in order to remove the Nazis from power, and yet in 2016 92 million Americans couldn’t even be bothered to vote to keep the preferred candidate of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and Vladimir Putin from power. We should berate these no-shows mercilessly, until they responsibly exercise their franchise. Aside from that: Meh. I’d rather watch woodworking videos on YouTube.

    • American corporate info-heroin? That sounds about right!

      And yes, I agree Anger can be productive when it leads to action. Perhaps the trick is to focus on the actions, and let the rest go, lest we go insane. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by Dave!

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