Sometimes, what’s most important for our sense of happiness and well-being is what we don’t do.
There are vices such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and impulsive anger that very clearly and predictably can destroy our health and happiness.
But of the common hurtful behaviors that come up with my clients year after year, one stands out significantly: watching TV.
I don’t mean watching an occasional show or movie at home. Nor do I think we have to get rid of our televisions entirely. But every time we sit down and turn on a news show, we’re likely to feel worse by the time we’re finished.
This is true to a lesser extent with news or talk radio – and how we spend our time online – but I want to focus on the presentation and powerful images of TV news.
Television news is skewed toward the worst, most violent and horrific behavior of humanity from around the world.
Mankind’s history has been chock-full of violence and horrors. But as civilization has developed, violence has decreased at a nearly miraculous pace. Steven Pinker shows this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, as does Lawrence Keeley in his War Before Civilization.
Of course, for any victim of crime, this decrease is irrelevant. Violence is violence, and the experience can be devastating.
But here’s the problem with TV: As I write this, there are roughly 7,469,916,048 people on Earth. That number will rise by at least a couple hundred thousand by the time you read this. Unless human nature changes completely and violence completely disappears from the face of the Earth, even the tiniest percentage of those roughly 7 1/2 billion people can cause trouble – with some of it being horrific, brutal, devastatingly evil trouble.
The chances that any of that is happening or is likely to happen to you or your loved ones isn’t 0%, but it’s certainly dramatically lower than the news would lead you to believe.
The news shows’ job is to entice people to watch. They know that the most powerful method for doing this is to show you the most traumatic, horrifying news from around the world. We’re wired to pay attention to these things.
When you come from such epically violent roots as humanity does, it’s important to pay attention to threats. When we see a threat, we look at it and our physiology changes to prepare ourselves for the danger in question.
This does two things to us:
- We can feel like danger is everywhere and immediate in a way that it probably isn’t – unless we live in a war zone or extremely violent neighborhood, or with a physically abusive and terrorizing person.
- There is, in reality, absolutely nothing we can do about almost everything we watch, because, for most of us, it’s completely removed from our sphere of influence. It’s either in a war zone in another country, involves political machinations we’re not connected to, or is in another city or neighborhood involving people we have no relationship or influence with. Because of this, not only do we feel the horror of what we see… We also feel completely helpless to do anything about it.
I suspect that this is a reason for the great popularity of the superhero movies, such as The Avengers, Iron Man or the newly released (and excellent) Dr. Strange. By allowing us to identify with the hero, we get to feel powerful and competent to deal with the overwhelming violence we see on our TV every day.
I’m not suggesting that you bury your head in the sand and pretend that everything is OK. There are plenty of problems in this world, and we solve them by paying attention and taking effective action, including the hardly exhaustive list below:
- Prepare yourself reasonably to defend against violence and danger, be alert to signs of possible trouble, and read Gavin de Becker’s great book The Gift of Fear so that you know what to look for and how you and your loved ones can avoid, escape or overcome danger.
- Be mindful of the effect you have on the people in your life: the people whose lives you can impact in a positive way. Then do what you can to follow through on that positive impact.
- Be loving, kind, empathetic and curious with those you’re close to.
- Vote, contact your representatives and give them a piece of your mind. And be as open as you can to rational, civil discussion of ideas (not shouting matches – those are useless at best).
- Strive to personally live with integrity and make the choices in your life you can be proud of – not boastful proud. Not arrogant proud… just that quiet inner sense that you’ve acted true to your values: that you’ve practiced virtue.
- Focus as much as you can on those things you do have control or influence over, and as little as possible on those things that are outside your control or influence.
Watching TV news gives you a radically skewed sense of the world, which undermines your sense of trust and well-being. The resulting helplessness you feel can even lead to depression.
So try this experiment: The next time you watch the news, pay attention to what you sense physically in your body. Then turn the TV off and read a book, listen to music, talk with a loved one… and notice how you feel physically. Or better yet, notice how you feel physically and emotionally when you take effective action like I’ve described above.
Compare that to the helpless, passive ingestion of trauma that you get from watching the horrors of the world piped directly into your nervous system via that box on the wall.
Then the next time you feel yourself drawn to turn on the news to see what’s happening in the world… don’t do it.
Have a look at the headlines or take a few minutes to read a website you can trust. Then turn it off and get back to what’s really important: your loved ones and friends, your work and interests, and the activities you can feel competent and effective at pursuing.
I’ve had clients with severe anxiety that was relieved simply by making this shift. Such anxiety can be a serious issue. But part of the solution can – sometimes – be as easy as turning the switch to off.
Turn off the TV news and notice what life is really like in your home, your neighborhood and your community. That’s where most of us have the greatest impact… That’s where life is truly lived.
I currently have some openings available for life coaching. You can go here to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.
“Dr. Joel is an extremely gifted counselor who has changed our lives. A few times we’ve felt so deep in the soup that we couldn’t even see a way out, but Dr. Joel’s gentle yet poignant questions have led us back to love. My husband and I are so grateful for him.” – LL