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.
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.