I was told not to use a phone or a computer. I was not to write or read. Some hours I was not even allowed to talk. I was told to sit quietly and watch my thoughts.
I was on a meditation retreat for three (long) days. In addition to meditating, I was asked to limit information. Hence no phone, no computer, no talking.
The point was to become aware of the thoughts in my head. And I did. My thoughts turned out to be surprisingly repetitive. Same shit on the loop.
But there was another revelation.
The retreat was quiet. As I was driving back, I became aware of all information we get on a daily basis. Cars, highway scenery, noise, radio… There was this stream of signals, loud and scary. I felt like I fell asleep in a theater and woke up to a loud movie.
And as I was catching up on the news and social media later that day, I noticed that this information made me feel certain way. News made me angry and anxious, Facebook made me envious and judgmental.
The news I was consuming had an emotional aspect. I was not aware of that before.
We like negative information. Kahneman and Tversky got a Nobel Prize by demonstrating that we assign more weight to losses than to gains (see loss aversion). Penny earned is less than the penny lost.
Evolutionarily, this makes sense. For example, losing food threatens our survival while finding more food (when we already have enough) does not improve it.
Hence loss-aversion is a better strategy. And because news about death, disease, and violence has allowed us to survive in the past, we gravitate towards negative information.
News providers know that. That’s why websites are full of information about terrorist acts, disease, and death. That’s why your local broadcasts are so depressing.
Negative news are good for business. But are they good for us?
Couple years ago I picked up a book on happiness by Tal Ben Shahar. The main advice from that book was to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day list 3 good things that happened to you that day.
Why would counting our blessings make us happier?
Not only do we seek negative information but we also (for whatever reason) dwell on it.
Some argue that this tendency of the brain to seek and dwell on negative information is responsible for depression. There’s a branch of psychotherapy treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The main point of the CBT is that depression is a disease of thought. A grandfather of CBT Aaron Beck thought that depression arises from our tendency to respond to one negative event and overgeneralize from it. Cognitively distorting the reality basically.
Hence, forcing your brain to recall positive events overrides the natural tendency to focus on negative. That’s how gratitude journals work.
The tendency to focus on negative is so strong that we have to make an effort to change it. So if you combine our tendency to dwell on negative events and media’s willingness to supply them 24 hours, what do you get?
When I started my job as a management consultant, my boss told me a story.
Imagine you are meeting GM management and you tell them gas prices went up. There’s nothing GM can do with that fact. Gas prices go up and down all the time.
But if you tell GM that
1) increasing gas prices will diminish sales of SUVs and will grow car sales and
2) GM should cut production of SUVs and make more cars…
your advise is actionable.
So, he told me, never bring unactionable information to a client. If the client can not act upon the news, your facts are useless.
In the past, negative news provided some value. Knowing that neighboring village is dying from a disease or nearby kingdom is getting ready for a war allowed us to plan and survive.
Today 99% of news is useless. Unless you are planning on curing Ebola. Or stopping Russia from invading Ukraine. Or fighting ISIS.
To be sure, these are tragedies. However, majority of us are not going to do anything about them. So reading about them is a waste of time.
And when we do something about them, our responses are often irrational.
Consider this example. The reality of living in the US today is mass shootings. Someone will go on a shooting spree in the next quarter and will kill people. Mass shootings are not longer random events here. They are given.
And what has been the public’s response? The gun sales spike after every mass shooting. That’s the only measurable impact we had in this country so far. How rational is that?
Reading the news considered to be a good thing, our society values “being informed.” Yet, what is point of being informed about things we cannot or wont change? Maybe instead of wasting our time on things we can’t change, we should spend more time on things we can?
And while the news stories are no longer actionable, we still react to them.
Over thousands of years, our body perfected response to threats. It is the famous flight-or-fight (for more read read this book). Our brain releases stress hormones (glucocorticoids) that start chemical reaction in our bodies to prepare them for the threat.
The preparation is at the expense of other systems. Your body shuts down production of growth hormone, lowers activity of immune system, neglects digestion, ramps up your heart rate, etc.
Our stress-response is ideal for immediate, short-term threats. Say we need to run away from a lion. But our current threats are long-term and perceived. Ebola, ISIS, Donald Trump.
The response is maladaptive, it creates a state of chronic stress.
Social media is another story. When I was in grad school, I came across a curios cognitive bias: better than average effect (BTA).
We think that we’re better than average. In surveys, more than 70% of respondents indicated that they are better than average, even though that’s statically impossible.
People think that they are smarter than average, healthier than average, happier than average, drive better than average, etc etc. We even think that good things are more likely to happen to us than to others.
The existence of the effect is puzzling. But one curiosity points to the possible explanation. The only people who do not exhibit the BTA effect are clinically depressed individuals. In fact, the more severe the depression the more likely the individuals to underrate themselves.
The BTA effect is protective. Apparently, it is good to be delusional.
Maybe we need the BTA effect to balance our tendency to dwell on negative.
So if clinically depressed individuals do not exhibit the BTA effect, could eliminating it in healthy individuals make them depressed?
More than a billion people test this theory by logging on Facebook.
Facebook creates a distorted picture of other people’s lives. It shows people who enter relationships but not those who break up. Facebook displays marriage announcements but hides divorces. Facebook shows vacations but not daily grinds.
Our brain habitually compares everything. So, every time you go on Facebook you see others living better lives than you do. To be sure, those are selective moments. Facebook approved. But our brain does not expand its mental range to encompass all possibilities. It reacts to what it sees.
So this BTA effect bubble that your brain has carefully constructed gets deflated by social media. Suddenly your life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it.
There’s an empirical evidence showing that we feel worse after visiting Facebook. The longer people spend browsing Facebook (mindless browsing especially), the more they think that others have better lives.
Facebook was meant to make us more connected. Ironically it makes us feel lonelier. And since perceived loneliness has well-documented negative health implications, Facebook is toxic.
So cut the news, cut the social media. Most of it does not matter. The world will carry on without you.
And the next time you find yourself alone in the room, instead of reaching for the cell phone, consider being bored. Sit quietly. Watch your thoughts. You will feel better.