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Is no news good news for wellbeing?

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

When it comes to stepping up, versus knowing thy inner predilection for 'doom scrolling', balance is everything.

I confess that once upon a time, I believed that staying engaged with current affairs somehow elevated me as a person - more informed, educated, and erudite. Being up-to-date with the news made me a citizen of the world, a serious individual who genuinely cared.

Then I had a rethink.

Timber Hawkeye, the American author behind Buddhist Boot Camp, visited our quaint town of Much Wenlock during his book tour. With his engaging smile, simple philosophy and unusual life story as an itinerant wisdom seeker, he held us in thrall. Add in a pleasing resemblance to Orlando Bloom, and it was as if a beautiful, fascinating alien had landed in our midst.

But then came the shock - he had no idea what was going on in the world. None whatsoever! He intentionally avoided all forms of news.

Something stirred in the room, an indignant tremor. How could he not engage with the news? Wasn't it a Buddhist's duty, as a practitioner of compassion, to be aware of the suffering of fellow humans?

The answer was no. No happiness or stillness could be gained by immersing himself in the suffering of others that he couldn't alleviate. As a Buddhist, he knew that suffering was inevitable for all sentient beings, towards whom he felt compassion. But he did not allow current affairs to disturb his own inner peace.

Though it bristled, perhaps Hawkeye was right.

Epictetus, a first-century Stoic philosopher, once said ‘People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them’.

Events such needless deaths, economic downturns, and rampant viruses sap our feelings of wellbeing. We can't help but be affected by them, they add to our sense that the 'world's gone mad', or is 'broken'. Our mood, outlook, and even our physiology can be affected by the relentless barrage of events that disturb us.

The term 'doom scrolling' brilliantly illustrates the addictive power of bad news. The pandemic mercilessly yielded images of queuing ambulances, grim graphs, and disappearing loo paper. For a time, we couldn't get enough - nothing entices the mind more than bad news - until many of us finally switched off altogether, breaking the doom spell for the sake of our mental health.

The Stoics, with their powerful message about control, can offer guidance about how to regulate our reactions to the news.

Focusing on what lies within our control brings focus and calmness. Dwelling on things beyond our control scatters our attention, rendering us less effective, jumpy, and unhappy.

It's wasted emotion that does nothing except darken the mind.

This is great wisdom for everyday life, such as in a traffic jam. Once we realise there is absolutely nothing we can do about a queue of stationary vehicles, we stop jumping up and down. Frustration dissipates. We are 'at the mercy of the gods', so let the mind rest.

The key is knowing which bits of the news lie within our sphere of influence.

This is where I tend to depart from Hawkeye's gentle wisdom. There's a middle ground between self-care and responsibility as members of the world. Like it or not, we take up space in the world, we do things to it and we live in community with others.

So when ocean temperatures send graphs into unchartered heights, and scientists talk about the time left to turn the ship around, I must hear this - even if it is depressing. This is about my children; it's about all of us. When I learn of suffering in the Middle East, I understand this isn't a pocket of faraway bloodshed; the ripple effects are all too real here in my own country and community.

Caring for the planet, our shared home, is within our control. Responding to the vulnerability and fear of a neighbour affected by global events is something we can do. With knowledge, there’s power and call to action.

Signing up for voluntary work, sharing a kind word, or discussing peace with young people - these are all things we can do.

What's more, doing something improves our levels of happiness. Showing our humanity, being courageous, acting with fairness and justice - these are character strengths that psychologists say elevate our feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction.

I'd also suggest limiting news consumption to one daily feed (preferably not before bed), and choose the source carefully. Not only is a constant trickle of bad news corrosive, it can also be divisive.

But most of all, it's about being aware of what lies within our control and what doesn't, and understanding that this has a bearing on both our wellbeing and our duty to act.

Nowhere is this more brilliantly expressed than the Serenity Prayer:

‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’.

For the context of the news, I suggest a rewording (albeit a more clumsy one) along the lines of this:

There are the things in the news that I cannot change, and I choose not to dwell on them for the sake of my inner peace.

There are things in the news that call me to change, and I choose to step up.

May I apply wisdom to know the difference.

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Nov 01, 2023

What a wise and helpful post this is, reconciling the need for social responsibility with the search for inner peace.

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