Respect The Hormones ‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’

As you may have noticed this week, The News.

One of the things that people say they appreciate about his newsletter is that I don’t tend to respond to current affairs. So I won’t do that today either.

(Except in this one bolded, italicised sentence, where I hope you will join me in a primal effort to extirpate all our collective rage: uggghaaaaaaaaghhhhhhgghghghghhguuuugaahhgahhhhhhhhguhggggggggghghgahhghhuuauauhghghghguuauuhghghghhghgghhgfuckssakefuckssakeghghgughghaagughhghhhhgagg.)

While I won’t respond to The News directly today, I will do something very much in keeping with the mission of this newsletter: I’ll show you a graph.

And then we can play a little game called: ‘What’s the time Mr News?’ or ‘What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing?’

But first a quick note about a hormone called cortisol.

Meet Cortisol

Cortisol is an awesome hormone. It’s quite literally what gets us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol’s superpower is that it gives us energy, fast. Quite handy.

One little problem with cortisol, however, is that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it can be pretty darned stressful. In fact, cortisol is often called ‘the stress hormone’ (an unfair nickname, given the number of other useful jobs it does).

You see, one of the things that cortisol can do is make you better at noticing crappy things and then make you feel crappier about those crappy things.

This is what sciencey people call elevated negative affect and arousal. It’s what the rest of us call stress and, at its worst, chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

(To be fair to cortisol, this combination of crap-ray-vision and fast energy does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. There wouldn’t be much point in us having a hormone that responds with high energy when primed by the sight of white fluffy clouds or a field of kittens.)

In summary: although we are very lucky to have cortisol, we don’t want to mess with it.

Okay. Now here’s the graph:

And all together now…

‘What’s the time Mr News?’

If The News were a neutral report of the comings and goings of the tides, the pattern of the clouds on the water, the first catkins on the hazel and the first daffodils on the verge, amid the nest-building busyness of spring, then all would be well.

But, sadly, it’s not.

The News, as digested by most humans, is a voluntary poison that will reduce grown adults to anxious, sad, catatrophising worriers in less than a quarter of an hour.

This catastrophising worry is likely driven by our friend cortisol, although that does depend on other situational factors. The effect seems to be particularly pernicious in women, for whom reading The News appears to prime cortisol spikes in response to subsequent stressors.

This probably comes as news to no one, but the science suggests that digesting The News with your breakfast will set you up for a crappy day.

What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing? Not until at least 4 hours after waking up.

The News Is A Privilege

The thing that gets me is that, for most people, The News is a privilege.

For people directly affected by the events reported in The News, it rarely comes through newspapers, social media or the television. The News comes as a knock on the door, a cry from a neighbour, a storm cloud on the horizon.

The News that the rest of us experience is a repackaged biography of other people’s lowest points, their worst moments, their most cataclysmic life events decontextualised for sensationalist (dare I say) entertainment in homes on the other side of the planet.

Worse: this style of ‘hard’ News can be addictive, often designed to manipulate our hormones to maximise eyeball retention, to maximise profit.

News aggregators like Google News or Apple News, shares on social media and ‘breaking news’ phone notifications all contribute to greater and greater consumption of The News and that growing addiction is associated with despair for the future and low levels of trust in other people.

I am not saying that we should ignore social and political events.

As psychologists Boukes and Vliegenthart put it in 2017, The News ‘is generally understood to be crucial for democracy as it allows citizens to politically participate in an informed manner’.

And I’m all for sharing more information to empower democratically active citizens.

But Boukes and Vliegenthart then go on to demonstrate that, due to its focus on ‘negative and worrisome’ events, The News as we know it has a ‘negative effect on the development of mental well-being over time’.

I don’t think any of us are surprised by this finding. But it’s time that we all took the science seriously and acted with total respect for the awful power of The News.

Please Don’t Abuse The News

Respect your own hormones: give yourself at least a few hours after waking up before stepping into fire hose. Turn off your breaking news notifications, delete your news apps, watch awesome nature videos instead of The News.

Respect other people’s hormones: don’t share The News — at all, if you don’t have to — but at least not without considering how it might land. Be aware that other people simply aren’t prepared to hear The News from you. They probably opened their messages with eyes still half shut hoping for a love note… And now they’ve got This.

If you’re not sure about sharing something; don’t. Wait for the right context. I understand that The News is traumatic and humans seek to share that traumatising information to soften the impact, like a freefalling skydiver landing on a trampoline.

If you feel traumatised by The News, first seek out a genuine connection with a friend, set up the context, and only if it’s right then share your pain.

Remember that The News is mostly awful life shit that’s really happening to someone else. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, then please spend the morning beside a quiet stream, watch the buds on the branches, listen to the soft news shared by the chattering birds.

I’m serious. Respect the hormones.

My touchstone in this endeavour is the nineteenth century naturalist John Muir. Stuck on his California farm, doing the ‘penal’ work of cherry-picking, Samuel Hall Young reports how John Muir longed for the ‘glaciers and woods of Alaska’:

Passionately [John Muir] voiced his discontent:

‘I am losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.’

Through all his raillery there ran a note of longing for the wilderness.

‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’

Outside my window, I can hear the gulls. So many great events are happening.


A friend who reads this newsletter says that, most of the time, he gets to the end and doesn’t really know whether he’s understood the message.

The comment made me laugh, but it’s a really good point. What is my message?

Shut off your screen, right now, and take a fourteen minute news-check on nature.

Reality and the Metaverse In a virtual universe designed by humans, humans know it all. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

This segment is inspired by two superb newsletters that dropped earlier this week. So before I go any further, hats off to Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing and to Nikita Petrov of Psychopolitica.

Todays newsletter is about the stories we tell each other about current affairs — popularly known as ‘the news’.

First up: the Metaverse.

Did you see this? If not, I’ll let Mike Sowden do the dirty work of introducing you to what can only be credibly comprehended as the feverish gibberings of Mark Zuckerberg in the afterglow of a wet dream:

A few days ago, Facebook’s parent company (also called Facebook) changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video outlining his vision for what he calls the Metaverse: a seamless network of virtual experiences that’ll try to create the perpetual illusion you’re “inside” the Internet while you’re online.

The Metaverse is full of ideas like virtual businesses running on Zuckerberg-owned cryptocurrency, cartoon avatars slightly more handsome than you, virtual screens that float in front of your face and augmented reality glasses.

Zuckerberg reckons this Metaverse is about 10-15 years away.

You can take your pick, but, for me, the most chilling part of Zuckerberg’s 75-minute presentation video is where he tawddles about privacy:

Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space — or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.

Because god forbid that you’d want to ever actually leave the Metaverse. After all, inside your own private bubble, no one can hear you scream.

The beauty of ignorance

I don’t know how you learned about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse announcement (maybe it’s from me, right now — the honour!), but I’m glad I got the news from Mike Sowden because, for a newsletter with the title Everything Is Amazing, the Metaverse comes as an existential threat.

It’s not just that a Zuckerberg-designed virtual reality is a terrifyingly advertising-strewn prospect, it’s that it will be bounded by human limitation in a way that reality reality is not.

In a virtual universe designed by humans, by definition, humans know everything. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

I’ll leave you with Mike’s beautiful conclusion:

Virtual worlds are most definitely designed by humans. This means they’re limited to what the human imagination is capable of cooking up, and the human-made computing hardware that can make it happen. In every way, a virtual world is anthropocentric. It’s by, & for, human beings.

The actual world, on the other hand, has a wonderful and occasionally disturbing tendency to ignore our wishes and surprise us in its unfathomable complexity, boundless novelty and awe-inspiring beauty. It is a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of, and most days, that’s kinda why life is worth living.

REALITY: The antidote

The antidote to the Metaverse, as Mike Sowden suggests, is reality. But perhaps not the REALITY of Nikita Petrov, author of the Psychopolitica newsletter.

Petrov’s REALITY is a work-in-progress YouTube show in which the most outrageous news stories of the day are read out in a dispassionate voice by an alien Bodhisattva journalist.

REALITY’s first story is about a German YouTuber, extremely popular with teenagers, who has inspired what psychiatrists are calling the world’s first ever mass sociogenic illness induced and spread by social media alone.

Jan Zimmermann, the YouTuber in question, launched their channel in February 2019. According to psychiatrists at Hanover Medical School, Zimmermann’s videos are peppered with ‘countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours’ that he claims are tics caused by Tourette syndrome.

The only issue is that these tics are only stereotyped ‘mimics’ of symptoms that ‘lay people typically associate with Tourette syndrome’.

Yet Zimmermann’s atypical behaviour is being copied by teenagers in Germany, UK, US, Denmark, France, and Canada, making it an illness seemingly induced by the viewing of entertaining YouTube videos.

Flying sharks and stress relief

This is how the Hanover psychiatrists introduce the new illness:

Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.

These teenagers basically start acting up when confronted with disfavoured tasks like schoolwork.

All patients presented with nearly identical movements and vocalizations that not only resemble Jan Zimmermann’s symptoms, but partly are exactly the same such as shouting the German words … “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks) as well as bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Tourette-like behaviours mysteriously disappear when the teenagers are engaged in more pleasurable tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, maybe…

But why?

According to the Hanover psychiatrists, these behavioural tics are a response to societal stress:

They can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.

It’s weird. It’s REALITY.

You can read more about Petrov’s plans for Reality over on their Psychopolitica Substack.

These stories are all very interesting, but what’s the point?

Good question. This segment has two points. The first point is that I heard the news of both the Metaverse announcement and the new social media-induced functional Tourette syndrome contagion from non-traditional news sources.

This made me reflect on the stories we tell each other about current affairs (AKA ‘the news’).

I’ve chosen to trust these two writers with telling me their news stories and both arrived directly into my inbox. I’ve been subscribed to Psychopolitica for over a year now, whereas this was my first edition of Everything Is Amazing.

Mike Sowden’s story, about technology in the shadow of climate change, is a desperate appeal to fall in love with reality reality again — before it’s too late.

Broadly speaking, Nikita Petrov’s REALITY is a satire on newscasting, but the story he’s chosen to read is a dispassionate account of what can happen (functional Tourette syndrome) when we mistake artifice (the YouTube storytelling of Jan Zimmermann) for reality.

Stories — whether wittingly or unwittingly — teach us lessons and both of these are lessons worth learning and re-learning.

I’ve been following my no news diet for five years now and these are the questions I ask myself on the regular:

  • Who are you letting tell you the news? Are these active or passive choices? Signing up to the newsletter of a trusted writer: active. Listening to the 5-minute news segments that appear between songs on a radio station: passive.
  • What kind of stories are they telling? You can even pin down the genre: is this a horror story? A thriller? A rom-com? A tragedy? A farce?
  • What lessons are you learning? This might take some digging because, as Nikita Petrov shows us, the storytelling of journalism is often concealed behind a supposedly dispassionate delivery.
  • How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel alienated?

That’s the first point of this segment. The second point is simply to say thank you for allowing me the privilege of telling you the news today.

More than a crime thriller

How was 2018 for you? Do you look back and remember a year full of bad news, bad news about Brexit, Trump and Russia?

In which case, here’s something to make you feel better:

“[The news] doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence, any more than a crime thriller… But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.”

Tony Gallagher, Daily Mail Editor (2015) [LINK]

As grown-ups, we’re made to feel like it is part of our duty as citizens to ‘stay on top of the news’. But who among us truly believes that what we’re sold as ‘the news’ is actually giving us the tools we need to fulfil our duties?

Academic Jodie Jackson has found that regular news reporting is disempowering, making us feel that our social problems are ‘inevitable and endless, rather than solvable and temporary’.

Cathrine Gyldensted, a masters candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people’s positive affect (something like happiness) fell after reading ‘classical’ news reporting.

If you’re not convinced, then by all means do an audit of your favourite news sources. Does their agenda empower you, inspire you, or make you want to go out and change the world?

Does ‘the news’ give you the tools you need as a citizen who hopes to live a more fulfilled existence in a flourishing world?

If your answer is yes, then fine: keep them.

But if you feel ready to chuck in your usual news sources, I’ve got a few suggestions for replacements:

  • Books and libraries. Set your own long-form agenda. Learn something new and change the future. [Why Everyone Should Watch Less News And Read More Books Instead by Ryan Holiday]
  • Friends – yes, friends! Whether it’s their new baby, a job vacancy at their company, or an invite to a barbecue next weekend, it’s rare that our friends don’t offer news of real, immediate value to our lives.
  • Strangers. Or, as they are sometimes known: fellow citizens. We could all do with hanging out together more often.
  • Community politics. Politics isn’t something that happens out in make-believe world of ‘the news’. It something that happens right now, on the street. Go and say hi. (Okay, so I’m still buzzing that the council recently fixed a faulty street light outside my house, but I do think this is true.)
  • Go for a long walk outside in nature. What’s the news with the starlings, with the streams, or with the sunset?
  • An afternoon nap. Sometimes the best thing you can do is nap.
  • The Future Crunch newsletter. Try their roundup of 2018 for size – tagline: The world didn’t fall apart this year. You were just getting your news from the wrong places.
  • Positive News magazine and/or blog. If you are looking for more positive sources of ‘news’, then this list by Jodie Jackson will help. But honestly: do you need them?

As someone who hasn’t read the news for two years, I promise that you really don’t have to stay on top of everything. Trust that the important stuff will come to you because it’s important.

In the meantime, read a book, phone a friend, talk to a stranger, go for a walk. You’re free now. Relax.

And I wish you a happy news year!

2017: No News is Good News

This year, I have tried my best to ignore the edutainment of what is colloquially known as “The News”.

According to my internet browser history, I have visited only 52 unique pages on the BBC News website this year – previously my number one news source. There was an understandable peak around the General Election (6 pages) and I was also interested in the referendum in Catalonia (3 pages) and the German election (2 pages).

9 of the 52 pages were news stories about sport. My news injunction did not extend to sport: I visited a gluttonous 516 unique pages on the BBC Sport website this year, which gives you some indication of my previous BBC News addiction. Continue reading 2017: No News is Good News