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The news ≠ your life

I'm convinced something very strange has happened to the way people relate to the news in recent years, and the day of the US election feels like a good moment to talk about it. (Anyway, what else were you planning to do – stare blankly at Twitter while consuming unwise quantities of alcohol in an effort to subdue the creeping dread?)


Sometime around the one-two punch of Brexitandtrump™, I started to notice in myself – and even more in certain friends – a tendency I've only ever managed to describe, in an awkward metaphor, as "living inside the news." It was as if more and more people were shifting their psychological centre of gravity, so the news was somehow realer to them than the concrete world of their work, family and friends. I don't just mean that they were "spending too much time online" or "addicted to social media" (although they were, and we are). I mean that the realm of presidencies, referendums and humanitarian crises had become the main drama of their daily lives, with their actual daily lives relegated to the status of a sideshow.


I first tried to get a handle on this in a piece for the Guardian's Long Read section last year. The short version: one huge factor is the online attention economy, and specifically the way that scrolling, clicking and sharing makes it feel like you're actively participating in the news cycle, not just observing it. But it's also because of the sense that these days we're living through History-with-a-capital-H. Maybe once we could treat the news as a soap opera, or a drama happening exclusively to people in far-off lands. But Trump and Brexit and coronavirus, and of course the climate crisis, have seen to that. 


The trouble is that human beings can't really function, let alone thrive, when their primary psychological identification is with things like "the news cycle" or "history" or "the course of world events." This is the realm in which, pretty much by definition, you exert zero individual control over what happens. So you're denied the basic sense of "self-efficacy" – of successfully getting things done – on which wellbeing depends. (As mentioned, social media gives the feeling of doing something, but almost never delivers, because you almost never have a real effect.)


To stay sane, you need at least one foot planted firmly in your world: the world of your job and neighborhood, that letter you need to mail, the pasta you're cooking for dinner, the novel you're reading with your book group, and that guy on your street who never cleans up after his dog – the world where you can have an effect, even if I've admittedly yet to have one with the dog guy. 


I hope you won't mistake this for another iteration of the popular advice that you should "stop reading the news." As 2020 has shown, world events impinge on daily life far too often, and too acutely, for that. (Although sometimes in unexpected ways: if the forces of history at work in 1930s Germany hadn't threatened my then-teenage grandmother's day-to-day survival, she'd never have fled to Britain, and I wouldn't exist. So, uh… thanks, Hitler?)


But it is an argument for reducing your emotional investment in the world of the news, and reinvesting in your own. For a start, that means staying aware of the pernicious incentives that drive even the most honorable media organisations today. They need your attention, which means maximising your emotional involvement. Which inevitably leads them to present every bit of news – even legitimately terrible things that matter a great deal – as if they mattered even more than they do. 


Politics isn't everything

It also means heeding the message of one of the most mindset-shifting books I've read recently, Overdoing Democracy, in which the philosopher Robert Talisse argues that politics is so broken precisely because politics so completely dominates our lives and minds. We first have to nurture social worlds in which we don't relate to others primarily as political friends or foes, if we're to build effective political coalitions. And marinating 24/7 in news-panic is a terrible basis for finding the energy and motivation to spend a few hours a week volunteering, or fundraising, or otherwise actually making a difference. 


But let's be honest: this is also just an argument in defence of enjoying your life. You hear it said that it's a marker of privilege to be able to back off from the news – to spend a pandemic planting bulbs in your backyard, or get absorbed in your creative work while democracy declines. But if it really has become a privilege to retain one's sanity, I think it's one the privileged need to exercise, not disavow. In an era when the news leaves half your friends paralysed by misery, it's no indulgence to make time for whatever's pleasurable or engrossing in your life. On the contrary, the world needs sane people more than ever. 

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