Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

The Guardian published an article earlier this week that struck me as timely and pertinent: “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.” Author Rolf Dobelli points out that a steady diet of news is unhealthy because       “. . . most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don’t really concern our lives and don’t require thinking. That’s why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind.”

He posits that most news is misleading (because the importance of most stories is distorted), irrelevant to our daily lives (because the headline grabbing stuff is usually not going to impact ordinary people), shallow (because it’s delivered quickly without much analysis), even toxic (because it triggers stress responses). And that it inhibits creativity, concentration, and clear thinking and encourages “learned helplessness.”

Yes, it’s ironic that a major newspaper ran this story (although one that does publish the in-depth analysis, investigative journalism, and other well researched, carefully prepared stories Dobelli explains are better for us). His contention that news is like a drug is hard to take, especially since I have an app on my iPhone called NPR Addict and I feel a little itchy if I haven’t checked the New York Times by breakfast. But after spending much of last week following the bombing and manhunt in Boston I have to agree with Dobelli — I felt like I knew very little but had taken in too much.

Dobelli recommends reading long journal articles and books, and consuming little to no “news” as it is currently delivered. Which complicates things, since most of the media the bookconscious household reads and listens to produce both short and long form journalism. I haven’t worked out a way to limit myself to the one without also taking in a fair bit of the other. Like eating well, it’s probably a matter of forming good habits.

In the instances where I’ve tried a “news fast” (several creativity books recommend this) I have noticed that I don’t miss  headlines or evolving news stories, but I do miss interesting articles about things that are new to me or local pieces like this Concord Monitor story about a woman who is opening a “sober living facility” for people who’ve finished residential addiction treatment and need a supportive community. If I stop reading the news altogether I’ll miss good things happening in the world, and that is an important part of a healthy news diet.

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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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