Why I’ve Gone On A ‘Media Diet’
I’ve been feeling quite miserable lately for no apparent reason. Not depressed – or even desperately unhappy – just a little lacking in enthusiasm for life and feeling ‘stuck’ and ‘trapped’ in some indefinable way. I knew that this state of mind, like all others, would eventually pass. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace the feelings and probe their origins. It led me to a surprising conclusion.
Whenever I’ve felt unhappy in the past I’ve cheered myself up by listening to my favourite music (techno always makes me smile) and then going for a walk. It never fails to cheer me up. But for some reason, this time it only lifted my spirits for a while, which is why I looked a little deeper. If you’ve read our book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World you’ll know that thinking about your state of mind can easily tip you into a downwards spiral that can create an awful lot of mental distress. This does not mean that you should avoid your troubles but rather that you should not dwell or ruminate over them excessively. As with everything else in life, a balance has to be struck. Avoiding your troubles can be just as toxic as endlessly churning them over in your mind.
Last week I decided to mindfully follow my negative states of mind as they waxed and waned through the day. I found that they began as soon as I opened my eyes (which was a little worrying to say the least). Once I realised this, the origin became blindingly obvious; the radio news was making me miserable and angry – and this set the tone for the rest of the day.
The most hard-hitting news programme in the UK is BBC Radio 4’s Today. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a bear pit where the brightest and fastest thinking politicians, thinkers, and business leaders are torn to shreds on a daily basis (usually by John Humphys or Evan Davis). Both journalists are without doubt brilliant and a credit to the BBC. Without them, and the rest of the Today team, the UK would be a far worse place.
My day would typically begin at 7am with the sound of a politician being crucified by John Humphrys. My mind would click into gear with a phrase such as: “What have those idiots done now?!”
Or, ‘Are they stupid?…’
Or perhaps: ‘Do they think we’re stupid?…’
‘People are turning into cattle…. Why do they put up with this…’
You get the picture.
And so I’d begin the day with an argument. Not good.
The rest of breakfast time would proceed in a similar vein. Perhaps there’d be a story of a factory fire in a third world country that had killed hundreds of desperately poor workers. Or maybe a plane had crashed in a fireball over a primary school. Or perhaps cornflakes had been contaminated with hospital waste…. After such cheery news the politicians would return for a re-match and would end up slinging meaningless and contradictory statistics at each other.
Last week it all started to get a bit overwhelming so I switched to the BBC World Service only to hear that there had been an upsurge in acid attacks on women in India. Lovely. Still, the Indian Parliament was going to make it illegal (‘Shouldn’t it have been illegal already!’ I shouted at the radio).
I realised that it was time to take a break from the news. Trouble is, I’m a news journalist. You see the problem.
Nevertheless, I decided to bite the bullet and abstain from broadcast news for one month (I still read newspapers and websites). Although that was only a week ago, I’ve already seen the benefits. I’m far happier. My bubbling anger has run into the sand. Life seems less bleak. The world doesn’t seem beset by intractable problems. Political wrangles no longer dominate my day. In short, I made the correct diagnosis and the cure seems to be working.
In a few weeks I’ll return to Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s essential that we know what is going on in the world and try to uncover the truth. Equally, we must remember that news is biased towards the negative. That is, negative news is always far more ‘newsworthy’ than good news. This isn’t just a bias in the media. Journalists aren’t seeking to depress us. They are simply reflecting our own natural negativity bias. We naturally seek out negative news because our mind is hardwired to spot danger (negative news) so that we can try and avoid it. So the media is simply a reflection of our own mind.