Feeding Our Bad News Addiction

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In today’s world of 24/7 media, both online and off, it is easy to get caught up in watching, reading and listening to the news three or more times a day. Many would say that contemporary broadcasting trends enable you have your finger on the pulse of global news as it breaks and to be ‘involved’ in events as they unfold. I can appreciate that argument, but does it make you happy? Only a small fraction of all news that you consume is good news. Is that because good things don’t happen? Of course not. Good things happen all the time, but bad news makes good news, as they say. So are we feeding our bad news addiction?

Consuming an unrelenting level of news, particularly when you are unlikely to do anything about it, only serves the purpose of draining your happiness. Let’s take the recent Ebola crisis: This tragedy was devastating communities and countries, and the medical and humanitarian volunteers were doing something heroic, and of course we shouldn’t ignore news of their work. But if you consume news all day long, what is your brain absorbing? You hear about Ebola first thing, on your drive to work, then again at lunch, and then again just before you go to bed.

Does the Ebola situation change that much on an hourly basis? Could you get all of the same information by reading one article, or watching one piece of news a day, or even one per week? If you read the news once a week, you would probably actually get a more rounded understanding, because instead of reading rehashed news each time, you would instead get the bigger picture all in one go.

Clearly when you are working you need to keep up with what is relevant to your field. If you are a banker, you need to read the Financial Times as part of your job. I need to know financial services news so that I can give the best advice to my clients. But I don’t need to hear doom and gloom all day every day. Since I started to take this approach about three years ago, I know nearly as much as I did beforehand (and on the topics important to me, I know even more), but I am also far happier. As Matt Ridley suggests in The Rational Optimist, ‘Most of the bad news will never happen anyway. How many times has bird flu or swine flu been about to kill thousands, but it never happens? It’s even worse in the world of finance. As the saying goes, economists have predicted 12 of the last three recessions!’ Matt Ridley says you can be a pessimist, and possibly be right but miserable, or you can be an optimist and possibly be right but be happy. I know which I prefer.

In The Rational Optimist, Ridley also discusses the gap between reality and our perceptions. When surveyed, most people felt that murder rates were on the rise, due to the increased publicity of each death. But when you look at the reality of the situation (see Ridley’s chart), you realise that compared to 700 years ago, murders are almost non-existent today. It’s all about perception!

reading graph

Initially when taking the approach of not consuming as much news, you think you might miss something important. You won’t. That guilt is soon replaced with a feeling of contentment. How many people go to sleep where the last thing they have watched is about a war-torn part of the world on the 10 o’clock news, and then the first thing they watch over their bowl of cereal is the very same topic? Most of the time, nothing has changed!

In fact, over the years life has become so much better. Not a little bit, but almost unbelievably so. People don’t believe this, because they looking at the negative news about terrorism, disease and stock market crashes. We are, in fact, feeding our bad news addiction, because it’s part of our self defence mechanism, and believe it’s what keeps us safe in the real world. The media know this, so that is what they feed you.

But if we look more closely, by almost every measure we have today, the world is getting better at an extraordinary rate. Over the last 100 years the cost of food has reduced 13 fold; the cost of energy has become 20 times cheaper; the cost of transportation has reduced 100 fold and communications are 1000 times cheaper. Every nation on the planet has got healthier and wealthier. Literacy rates around the world have gone from 25% to 80%, the human life span has more than doubled, and the per capita income for every person, after being adjusted for inflation, has more than tripled. This has been an extraordinary century, and the technologies that have spurred this are only accelerating.

So make a point to stay away from so much negative news, and focus on making your life a happier place to be, whether that is in the lead up to, at or in retirement. You will have a better life for sure.

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