Back when I was still working in an airport, my colleagues would turn on the TV in the staff room to watch royal weddings, sports, reality shows, commercials, and of course, the news. At times I would actively seek away from it, as if it were some contagious disease. I would usually find somewhere else to sit or use my headphones to listen to music until they had left and I could either switch it off or over to something more educational.
I sporadically read thorough explanations, debates or unorthodox opinions on an important issue, but general news, gossip, announcements and even most mainstream political debate never caught my interest.
There was a drawback to this aversion: Since everybody else seemed to be up to date on the news, I felt ignorant in comparison. Like I ought to know more. And since they are so easy to access on all our devices, I had no good excuse for not being updated on the news.
But do you know that feeling when you discover that someone has expressed a notion that you couldn’t quite articulate yourself? Something that you subconsciously understood but could only fully embrace once someone else had spelled it out?
That’s how I felt when I read Thoreau’s 1854 essay “Walden”, in which he said:
“… And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter,–we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? …
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,–that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality. … Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance, … through church and state, through poetry and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.”
Suddenly I understood my own aversion to news. I saw that it was not unreasonable; that it was in fact rather sensible. I wouldn’t say that I made a principle out of avoiding news at all costs, but it was easier for me to guiltlessly give away my TV, unsubscribe from newsletters, and even install an app that eradicates my Facebook news feed.
You May Feel Ignorant
I would never deny that averting general news has its downsides. You are less informed about the state of the world than you could be, and therefore your decisions will also be a little less informed.
On the other hand, news are never neutral. Journalists and the media often try to present news as separate and unrelated events, or they provide such an unnuanced view of a given situation that you are left with a very different impression than if they had taken the time (or effort) to thoroughly explain it. This quote, possibly by Mark Twain, sums it up very well: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed”.
With that out of the way, let’s consider the advantages of averting mainstream news.
1. Less Tumult, More Energy
Firstly, you will be less inclined to depressing thoughts and have more productive energy. Constantly being reminded how grim and awful state the world is in can send us down spirals of negative thinking, leading to feelings of hopelessness and frustration. We know we individually cannot do much about, say, a war, but in spite of that (or because of that) hearing about the war over and over can still bring us down. By now, we (ought to) know enough about the state of the world to develop and express our opinions, to be aware of the opinions of others, and to get involved and help.
Let’s take an example. Learning that there are even more refugees than before does not change much for me. I periodically donate the clothes I don’t use, I donate the money I can spare, I greet refugees as nicely and welcoming as I can, and I have the same view on immigration politics as before. Clicking “Like” on a Facebook story about it will not help anyone. Watching the news in itself doesn’t do any good unless it is followed by action.
Another example. Learning that yet another family died in a car crash will not alter my habits. I will still not drink before getting behind the wheel, I will still always wear my seatbelt, I will still follow traffic regulations and use common sense when driving.
Neither instances are really educational or relevant for my conduct of life, for my opinion or my capabilities. Both stories are, however, very sad. I am not avoiding them because I am apathetic; I avoid them precisely because I am too empathetic and end up feeling terrible about other people’s misery. While I believe our capacity for empathy is of utmost importance and a trait worth cultivating, incessant grievance and sadness for others, and endless internet debates about politics that rarely lead anywhere, drain me of optimism to the point where I have less energy to do anything useful for the world.
By avoiding such “news”, which are just reiterations of familiar principles, I have a greater surplus of energy and optimism that I can use in the service of others. I’m quite confident it can do the same to you.
2. More time
Society moves really fast. Slowing down and not indulging in your urge to stay updated can create a space in your daily life for better things. It gives you time you could spend on better things. You could try to make a difference by doing volunteer work and helping out with one of the many problems the news reminds us of. Or you could simply do something that makes you happy, like cooking a healthy meal or picking up a book.
Books provide a beautiful and much needed contrast to the shallow and often meaningless reporting in mainstream news. Again quoting Thoreau, he pointed out:
“There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. […] How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The present unutterable thing we may find somewhere uttered. The same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted, and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.”
3. A Reality Check
Social media are often used to present one’s life as glamorous, wonderful, and exciting. We use it to display all our successes and accomplishments, our adventures, our latest purchase, our party clothes, how insightful or caring we are, and all other virtues when we occasionally exhibit them.
As we check out Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat feeds, we tend to forget that these same people, who would like to make you believe that their lives are near perfect, also have all kinds of problems. Maybe the bank account is low after that purchase, maybe they vomit and waste an entire day due to hangovers after that exclusive party, maybe they are posting all those selfies because they are very insecure, maybe they had to work at a boring job for months to afford that holiday.
Living without the one-sided pseudo-reality relayed via the news and social media, but rather judging reality from real interactions with people as I meet them, I feel better about my own life, because I see that we are all experiencing ups and downs, almost perpetually. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I don’t need others to post gym-selfies or personal records to motivate me to work out. I don’t need to see party pictures to get in a social mood and feel an urge to meet people.
I know many people try living without their phones for a day, or without Facebook for a week. Try living without the news for a month, and see how it feels.