Why You’re Addicted To Bad News And How a News Diet Can Increase Your Tranquility

Why You’re Addicted To Bad News And How a News Diet Can Increase Your Tranquility

Why your ‘negative bias’ might be making you anxious…

40,000 years ago your great, great (add however many greats you like depending on your maths/history skills) stone age grandfather, whilst out hunting for wild boar to feed his family (like you going to work today but very old school) came to a small group of trees. They offered him a little shade from the searing African sun, a good place to hide as he stalked his prey and a sense of protection from the local sabre tooth squirrels. So he squatted (a proper deep squat with his heels planted on the ground – like you should do at home sometimes instead of lounging on a sofa all evening getting your spine all bent out of shape) and rested.

Then his peripheral vision picked up two anomalies to both his left and his right. His brain assessed this data before his conscious awareness developed any knowledge of them and before any decisions (the illusion of free will – another topic for another day) could be made.

On his left, a bush – maybe billberries. Full, ripe and delicious looking. These would be packed with instant energy, sugary carbs to fuel the impending sprints (that could often turn into marathons depending on the speed and tenacity of his quarry) – a real goldmine.

On his right, lay in the long grass, staring intently and making it’s own assessment of his nutritional value versus the risk versus the potential energy expenditure of chasing him, was a sabre tooth squirrel. I mean, tiger.

Your distant relative didn’t register the plump berries, didn’t even become aware of their existence. He only had eyes for the clear and present danger. He watched the tiger carefully, deciding whether to brace for a fight, run for the hills, climb a tree or simply, stealthily wait out the threat and find somewhere to hide. Whatever he did, he survived and you are alive today to read about it. So well done him.

Or more importantly, well done his brain’s Negative Bias. That is, it’s prerogative to focus on the danger rather than the reward. The threat ahead of the treat. If he had obliviously wandered over to the berries, whistling the theme tune to the Flintstones, back to the beast – he would have been the next thing eaten. And you would not exist.

That, in an admittedly long winded description, is why we all tend to have a negative bias. We are all drawn towards bad news more than we are towards the positive. It’s in our DNA. It has, for 40,000 years saved our lives countless times and earned it’s rightful place amongst the plethora of things we do that we don’t really know we’re doing but at some point served us well. Like men’s nipples (I’m kidding, they were never useful).

If not for negative bias we would not have survived this long, but with the vestiges of this no longer needed (as in, you don’t get stalked by sabre toothed tigers on route to work) mental process still forcing it’s will upon our daily activities we are still slave to its ultimate effect – an overwhelming focus on the negative.

You don’t have to let your negative bias dictate how you feel

This is not intended as a science lesson on the effects of negative input on your brain, you already know the effect of that, both in terms of what you may have already read, what common sense dictates and what you have experienced yourself for your whole life: Too much bad news makes you miserable. There’s no getting around that. The accumulative effect of a steady diet of negative news via TV news, radio news, Internet news, social media news and word of mouth is massive. In fact, it’s a bit too much to bare. The good news? You don’t have to bare it. You can free yourself from the weight of the world’s problems and in doing so three things will hold true:

  1. You will not miss anything important
  2. Ethically, it is absolutely fine for you to take a break from a world’s worth of bad news (you are NOT part of any problem if you choose to avoid bad news)
  3. You will experience a greater sense of tranquility in your life

As with everything I write about you should be aware that this is not advice, this is what I do and what I have found works for me. When I write about it, it’s because I’ve found something worth sharing and hopefully something you’ll find useful Take it, use it and make your own adjustments; be the experiment.

What are we calling bad news?

Any channel or method of delivery that delivers local, national or global news.

News is nothing new. as a species we’ve been passing information to one another since we’ve known how to talk. A lot of it is critical to our progress and survival and a lot of it can be useful, positive, or neutral at best. Sports, the latest science, a royal wedding; culture, community and belonging. Tribal imperatives, a hub for social interaction and productive common ground.

The problem is that there is a lot of utter horror in the world. An overwhelming amount actually. I’d be willing to bet that if you were to to be told, right now, of the 10 worst atrocities that occurred around the world in the last 10 minutes alone, you’d be curled up on the floor weeping like a baby. I know I would be, and often have been. In our heart of hearts we already know what a tough old place this planet can be for anyone and everyone from time to time. From people, to animals, to the environment and the planet herself, there is plenty of suffering to go around.

So why on Earth do we need to place ourselves in front of the channels set up specifically to deliver as much of this bad news as possible directly into our delicate head-jelly? Is our negative bias simply that strong? Actually yes. And on top of that we have the whole thing compounded by commerce and greed. Bad news sell newspapers, bad news gets you in front of the TV adverts, bad news gets you visiting their websites and following their tweets and Facebook updates. If they put bad news in front of you, your negative bias will help them make more money. Perhaps it’s a little manipulative but there you go; just one more marketing strategy thanking science for a 40,000 year old loop-hole.

How does it work?

This is one of the easiest diets you’ll ever undertake, absolutely no effort required at all – just some new habits to be formed. You’ll not only have to invest in any special equipment or subscriptions, neither will you have to absorb any new information or wear special clothes. In fact, you’ll be ‘knowing less’ if anything and finding yourself with more time to do the things you never seem to find time for (like reading, talking to people, going for walks and meditating).

Here’s my list of simple news diet rules:

  • Don’t watch the news on TV
  • Don’t listen to the news on the radio (in the car or anywhere else)
  • Don’t read the news on the Internet (including phones, tablets, laptops, smart fridges etc)
  • Don’t buy newspapers
  • Ignore billboards
  • Unfollow or hide any social media ‘friends’ or services that are likely to update you on the horrors likely to occur somewhere in the world on any given day
  • Unsubscribe from any news based email newsletters

That’s it. Don’t fret if news seeps through, it almost certainly will. There will be important things going on in the world from time to time; things that will (or could potentially) directly affect you, your loved ones or your tribe and people will let you know about these things.

Keep it simple; just turn the volume down in the car when the news comes on, unbookmark the news websites you hammer whilst sat on the toilet every morning (play candy crush instead) and make a conscious choice to avoid news channels of various types throughout your day.

Even if you only do half of these things, you’ll make a big difference.

Ethics: If you ignore the bad news, are you contributing to it?

Can you stop the bad things from happening that have already happened? No, of course not. You can’t change what you see, read and hear in the news any more than you can alter history. You’re not guilty of any of the horrific events that remain unreported either. And neither can you have any impact on whether or not tragedies occur in the future.

Your tribe will tell you if something important unfolds. Real news will always filter through allowing you decide how you can best help others if it’s appropriate. The spirit of human kindness is not negated by a news diet, if anything it supports it. You can make a more positive impact to people around you every day if you’re not swamped with negativity that exists beyond your control. You can’t save ‘em all Hasselhoff.

It’s not your responsibility to always know of man’s latest inhumanity to man. Your responsibilities are closer to home, they need you to be present and will benefit from a happier, calmer you.

Tip: Install the Momentum App in your browser. When you open a new browser tab (like when you fancy checking the news or being distracted by your social profile) Momentum fires up a beautiful photograph (seriously, very nice images) along with an inspiring quote and a reminder of your main objective for the day. VERY useful for mindfulness, productivity AND for maintaining news diets!

This is what I do and I won’t be looking back. It’s a mini freedom of sorts, I no longer feel obligated to absorb the atrocities (or feel guilty for doing so) and I am a LOT more tranquil for it. That means I’m calmer, happier and generally more positive about everything that’s important. And that’s good for the people around me too. It’s not hiding, it’s the opposite, it’s living.

Like I said, this is what works for me and unless you have a very, very different sort of brain, and you probably don’t, it would be worth you giving a news diet a go.

So here’s your official Wittering On 30 Day News Diet Challenge:

Follow the list I’ve outlined above for 30 days (Habits can take anywhere from 30 – 60 days to stick depending on who you listen to) and see how you feel. Do your best to stick to the rules but don’t stress if you can’t avoid the news. We’ve all been stuck in a waiting room with a TV broadcasting the weight of the world’s ills to all and sundry. That’s what Angry Birds is for. Distract yourself, lose yourself, turn away, turn it down, ignore it, turn to someone and talk to them. Anything except bad news. Don’t forget, sports news is allowed, as is banal celebrity gossip or anything positive, just don’t sit through the horror to get to it.

The benefits may not actually be apparent straight away, but as with any elimination diet, it’s when you revert back to your old habits and give in to the negative bias that you’ll really appreciate the tranquility you’ve been working towards.

I appreciate yoga, meditation, journaling and news diets the most when I DON’T do them. It’s when I lose my habits that I realise how much they were positively impacting my life.

There is no sabre tooth tiger waiting to ambush you any more, so stop looking for one and go pick some berries instead. You’ll be much happier.

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