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Braking news

For just a day, step back from all the news that gives you fits



Illustration by Richard Mia

In 1986, a man named Christopher Knight walked into the Maine woods and found an isolated spot to pitch a tent. He remained there until 2013, when he was caught stealing food from a summer camp. In all those years, the man known as the North Pond Hermit never talked to another person. His world was limited to his immediate surroundings.

When journalist Michael Finkel interviewed Knight for his book The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, he asked Knight what he thought of the changes in technology since he had removed himself from contact with the modern world. Knight was unimpressed. “People earnestly say to me here, ‘Mr. Knight, we have cell phones now, and you’re going to really enjoy them.’ That’s their enticement for me to rejoin society. … I have no desire. And what about a text message? Isn’t that just using a telephone as a telegraph? We’re going backwards.”

After Knight dropped out of society, there was a revolution in the way we get news: Every hour of every day, messages and alerts arrive in our computers and on our phones. Most of us accept this as progress. But for 27 years, Knight existed in a bubble, even as the rest of us became more and more enmeshed in the flow of news speeding into our lives. We now spend an average of 11 hours a day “interacting with media,” staring at our screens and reading about things happening far away.

In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. We need to be informed in order to help others who might need it. Yet there is a cost to this nonstop influx of news. Constantly monitoring the news can affect our emotional state, our energy level, our mental health, and even our worldview.

Knight has likely never suffered from the condition known as headline stress disorder, or news fatigue. But many of us have: According to a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association, 54 percent of people said that following the news causes them stress. And a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that 68 percent of Americans feel “exhausted” by their news consumption.

Among the many reasons that too much news might not be good for you, the most significant is that news tends to be more negative than the world really is. We have an innate need to pay attention to bad news, because, in evolutionary terms, such information can be more important to our immediate survival. Scientists call this our “negativity bias.”

We all know how hard it is to turn away from stories about terror attacks, hurricanes, shipwrecks, dying coral reefs, or whatever the disaster might be. But when we consume these stories continuously, it takes a serious toll on us. In 2015, researchers in Israel found that “increased frequency of viewing newscasts” causes a jump in “uncontrolled fear, physiological hyperarousal, sleeping difficulties, and fearful thoughts” and makes a person 1.6 times more likely to experience at least one symptom of anxiety.

Psychologists Wendy Johnston and Graham Davey conducted another study, in which participants watched 14-minute segments of positive, negative, or neutral news. The viewers of negative news reported being more anxious and sad afterward than the two other groups. But the effect didn’t stop there. It carried over into concerns about the participants’ own lives, making them more likely to “catastrophize” personal concerns that had nothing to do with the news. As Davey writes, “not only are negatively valenced news broadcasts likely to make you sadder and more anxious, they are also likely to exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties.”

These days, negative news is all around us. It’s in our pockets. It’s in our cars. It’s in the waiting room. We live in an ocean of bad stories, so it’s no wonder many of us feel we are being swept away. Some 69 percent of Americans report that worrying about the future of the nation causes them stress. This is at a time when by many measures — education, income, life expectancy — we’ve never been better off.

In the past, news wasn’t so immediate. By the time we read it in the paper, some time had passed, which allowed for a healthy feeling of distance. Much of what we read about today is also distant from us, in that it doesn’t affect our daily lives. Paying undue heed can make us blind to many of the things that do matter.

This is not a new insight. In 1854, another would-be hermit named Henry David Thoreau put down similar sentiments in Walden, which he wrote while living in a cabin on a pond. In the book, he complained about our appetite for a constant influx of news.

“Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels,” he wrote, adding, “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.”

Thoreau’s position was extreme. He eschewed the news not because he wasn’t interested, but because he didn’t want to be distracted from the things that he thought mattered. “I went to the woods,” he famously stated, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

The question for us is: Which facts are the essential ones? Is it knowing exactly which politicians are up in the polls, or that a building has burned down, or whether a hurricane has made landfall? It’s no wonder we have trouble appreciating the simple pleasures our life has to offer.

When I think back to my own best days, times that seem truly joyful, they are times when past tragedies and future disasters didn’t seem to matter: a sunny picnic with my wife in a New Zealand vineyard; holding my newborn daughter for the first time; playing soccer with friends in a park in Italy; skipping rocks on Lake Superior with my girls. In those times, I was just there.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t read the news. But to let tomorrow’s worries overwhelm today’s joys is a bad bargain. To save the future, first we need to save the present.

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau wrote, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”

You don’t have to hide in the woods to do that. All you need to do is spend one day without the news. By the end of it, I can guarantee, the world will already feel a little better.

Frank Bures is the author of  The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.

• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.