Reading the News and Mental Health

Book Review: Stop Reading the News

By Dhanishta Shah

Browsing the morning paper with your daily cuppa; catching up on headlines on the radio as you drive to work; getting quick bite-sized information on what’s happening around the world in short ‘breaks’ from work; scrolling the news feed several times during the day; watching the news bulletin on television as you munch on dinner……all these actions may describe how many of us consume news every day in order to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world around us and of course, to gain a better understanding of things and events that impact us.

But what if someone told you that reading the news does not actually add to any kind of understanding or knowledge? What if this is an action that at best serves to distract you? What if it merely gives you the illusion of knowing more? More dangerously though, what if it could lead to emotional, mental and physical toxicity? Now, is that news to you? In Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, author and thinker Rolf Dobelli, argues against news consumption.

To understand the macro-premise of his argument, one can use an analogy related to food. Overabundance is the bane of our times. A couple of decades back, there was a point in society that food was available in abundance in most urban households. Today, we have reached a stage where lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity, which have direct links to this overabundance, plague our lives. In the post-truth world that we inhabit, there is an overabundance of news. This is due to proliferation of multiple avenues to access news, and the ease of the doing so. Dobelli observes this phenomenon of abundance with news consumption. He puts it quite directly when he says, ‘News it to the mind what sugar is to the body’. Will news toxicity be the curse of the future? Maybe, its effects are already spreading far and wide, impacting our holistic well-being.

Stop Reading the NewsThe book highlights the harmful effects of news consumption. In over several short but super-impactful chapters, each supported by relevant research he puts forth convincing arguments about the negative impact of news. For example, news consumption damages concentration and may just impair our ability to focus on tasks that really matter. It could actually have a physical impact on your body in terms of heightened anxiety for instance. It can lead to a feeling of learned helplessness and in some cases even a kind of systematic desensitization to the events around us.

While the book puts forth several compelling and research-supported arguments against news consumption, does it offer alternatives? After all, consuming news is intrinsic to our lives. It is something we just do every day, without really going deep into the ‘why’ of it. As citizens of the world, we can’t insulate ourselves from what is happening around us. Dobelli does give creative suggestions on how one can gain a clear understanding of the world even without reading the news. One of these involves reading well-researched longform articles, and completely ‘ban’ any popular (especially bite-sized) news nugget. It is almost a call for complete detoxification of the mind.

Another interesting suggestion is that of a ‘news lunch’, where one can meet a friend and learn something ‘true and relevant’ which enhances understanding of the crux as well as nuances of the topic discussed. In Dobelli’s news lunches, which he often conducts with different friends who are experts in their respective fields, each individual focuses on one aspect of a topic with a view to disseminating and discussing relevant information. This results in mental enrichment of both the people participating in the news lunch. The book elucidates the benefit of this process in detail. It would probably be useful to delve into some of these ideas and see for yourself what difference they make to your ‘post-news’ life.

It may seem that living a life devoid of news is difficult, probably impossible. However, it is worth having an open mind and hearing out Dobelli’s arguments against the news, his alternatives for the same, and his musings on what the future of news would be. Who knows, you may just get yourself a peaceful and more enriched life! And wouldn’t that be good news?

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