Anyone else feel their pace quicken a bit in seeing the image above? The dramatic run-up to this election and a week of counting close vote tallies across multiple states really left me emotionally exhausted. I’m glad things seem to be settled now, but I feel awful for spending so much of my brainpower watching the world around me unfold. Now is a good time for many of us to reflect and improve.
News cycles like this feel like a mental version of digging into a pile of food that is incredibly tasty at the time, yet leaves us feeling empty and sick when it’s over. We doom-scroll on Twitter, reload fivethirtyeight.com every 5 minutes, and watch the same cable news hosts say the same things over and over and over. That 50th hot wing, second bottle of wine, full sleeve of Oreos, and 2am news update sure seemed like a good idea, until the hangover hit hard.
Whether it’s mis-feeding our bellies or our brains, our only hope as humans is to finally hit rock bottom and commit to changing our behavior. I’m committing to hitting the reset button on my news consumption—again—and invite you to join me on the journey.
Our (News) Networks Make or Break us
I believe the initial step to changing behavior is to understand why we act the way we do. We shouldn’t use the excuse that our nature makes us behave in certain ways, but it helps to know what operating system is driving us in certain directions so that we can build counter-programming.
First, we are evolutionarily driven to seek new information. All animals are born to be curious, and the pleasure-giving neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released when we learn. New information, brought through multiple senses, brings new opportunity for food, shelter, mates, etc. Our brains are designed to continuously test the world and record the results. We build prediction models and go about our day seeking information in order to test and refine these predictions. We are the product of ancestors that survived because they were very attuned to new information. So when “Breaking News” splashes across our screens some of our deepest drivers are activated.
Second, we are driven to seek information from our networks. The unique difference in humanity is not just intelligence, but social intelligence. By “social intelligence” I mean that we are able to learn more about the world by sharing what we know in cooperation with other people. Simply put: it’s a lot more efficient to learn when we can share the learning load. One person learns how to make fire or weave a basket, and we all reap the rewards. That has led humans to evolve brains that are critically tuned to social dynamics in order to optimize for social intelligence. We communicate in subtle facial expressions and sophisticated languages. We ensure cooperation through gossip and reputation systems.
The news sources we turn to serve as a kind of social network. They are a modern version of the gossiping neighbor at the water well. We tend to trust some channels more than others, and we sometimes become part of a tribe through comment sections and sharing links.
So, whether they are consciously strategically exploiting us for profit, or unconsciously following their innate human drives, news networks have become masters at pulling these triggers inside of us. We need to take a step back when we find ourselves hitting reload on these websites or leaping to see what the latest phone alert says. This is when we are at our worst, little more than a lab rat pressing a button for a food pellet.
Tips for Balanced News Diet
At the end of the day, we’ve all got to take responsibility for our own emotions and mental health. I’ve been hit or miss on this, to be honest. I continue to work on self improvement through mediation, studying ideas such as stoic philosophy, and daily journaling. Here are a few approaches that have helped me—that I’m doubling down on again:
Spread your sources - Try to bring multiple news networks into your daily consumption. I start my day with both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which helps balance the right and left views of the world. Remember that news organizations will always have some biases, based on a combination of their particular ownership, location, history, subscribers, and advertisers.
Ladder up your analysis - I like to turn news headlines and Tweets into a game of “What are they trying to do here?” Is this news, opinion, or entertainment? Do they have a strategy or angle at play? Remember that their business model is about baiting you to click and stay—and if you’re not paying, you are the product.
Limit your exposure - This is my favorite tactic: Just turn it off. Delete the app, block the alerts, pick something else to read or watch. Or find specific, limited places, tools and times to engage. For example, read the news at breakfast, and then you’re done for the day. Or subscribe to The Week magazine, which does a great job of summarizing the past week’s news and events with comments and quotes from multiple perspectives. This allows you to stay in the know without being overwhelmed.
Practice Indifference - This is where the ancient stoics can still teach us a powerful lesson. There is no good that can come from worrying over something that you cannot control. I’ve felt this the most in my declining passion for watching sports. I used to get really worked up after my team lost a big game—literally losing sleep that night—until I finally asked myself: “Why am I getting emotional about a game that I’m not even playing?” Most of today’s news is no different.
The Healthy Content I’m Craving
Improving your food diet isn’t just about cutting out the junk food. You’ve got to add healthier options. The same goes for information. There’s two areas where I’d like to consume more of:
Local news - The things that happen in our own communities are infinitely more impactful on our lives than who is serving in federal office. This is where most of our tax money is spent to our direct benefit—literally in our backyards. It’s the roads we drive on, the schools our kids attend, and the jobs where we work. Unfortunately the local news business is struggling and seems to be worsening. I’m longing for novel solutions and will happily support them with my dollars.
Diverse discussions - The best way to learn is to expose ourselves to multiple viewpoints, with active dialogue back and forth. Any good network should allow for some new information and opinions to come through. I worry that we’ve lost this. People seem to be stuck in filter bubbles that bring more intensity to existing views, and we all seem too worried about offending each other to have healthy debates.
This last point on the need for more diverse networks is something that we’re already working to address with Hearty. A very early step we’ve taken is to allow members to see how broad and diverse their networks are in comparison to others. We’re going to keep adding feedback and features that encourage people to step beyond their closed networks and build new relationships with great people.
Committing to any new diet—including a news diet—takes focus and work. But getting our minds in a healthier place is certainly worth the effort. I wish us luck!