We’ve gone without live television for the last 11 years or so, but I recently installed a fancy antenna in our attic, and now we get a bunch of crystal clear local stations in high definition for $0 a month. Normally, I’d say that’s an awesome deal, but it’s worth noting that there have been a few drawbacks.

Photo collage of TV antenna setup
Wiring up our attic TV antenna (affiliate link) is one of embarrassingly few home improvement projects I have to my name, so I’m sharing these photos to brag about it.

Specifically, we started doing something that we’ve never done before: watching TV news. It’s been fun to feel a little more “in the loop” all the time, understanding every new meme about politicians’ gaffes, the Super Bowl halftime show, etc. But for the most part, watching the news has just burned time that might have otherwise been spent enjoying sunshine and fresh air, without meaningfully improving our lives.

I really have nothing against journalism or “the media,” and I do think it’s important to stay informed. But I want to highlight some realizations we’ve recently had about how an overconsumption of news can kill your joy (and maybe even your finances) without you even realizing it.

Herd Thinking

At the time of writing this article, the world is in the middle of a global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For some reason, some Americans decided that they needed to stock up on toilet paper to combat this respiratory illness, causing a shortage in a few areas. The news picked up the story, and suddenly, almost every store across the country is out of toilet paper because “if they’re stocking up, I better get some, too!”

My point isn’t that the virus is no big deal, or that the media has no useful information to share. I’m really just pointing out that most people have a tendency to react to what everyone around them is doing, regardless of whether that makes any sense — and the news exacerbates this.

The effects of herd thinking can be more serious than a toilet paper shortage. Whenever anything happens in the stock market, big or small, the media reports on it. Because their profits are driven by how many eyeballs stay glued to their screens, they have a tendency to state things in the most dramatic ways possible.

Screenshot of market news report

Our preferred way to invest in the stock market is to buy well-diversified index funds consistently over many years, without reacting to big price swings at all. It’s been a winning strategy throughout all of American history, but it can be really hard to stick to when the news is constantly pummeling you with how much money you’re losing on those few bad days. We’ve managed to avoid ever selling stock for anything other than to buy our house for cash, and I would credit some amount of that emotional fortitude to our limited consumption of news. Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed friends, family, and internet acquaintances jump in and out of the stock market, and others avoid investing entirely — often based on fear of what they hear in the news.

Herd thinking applies to travel planning, too. We’re obviously big fans of peaceful, quiet getaways. That’s why we normally like to visit remote areas and places nobody’s ever heard of before. If you watch the news and hear that “this weekend has perfect weather for a trip to Disney World, and it’s also perfect timing to catch this once-in-a-lifetime special event there,” guess what you’ll find when you go? Yep, a gigantic crowd of people who all heard the same thing.

Photo of Lauren at Kenai Fjords
Lauren looking out at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. Our kind of vacation.

Pessimism and Consumerism

Ever heard the saying, “no news is good news?” It’s sorta true. Media companies have learned over time that what keeps people tuned in more than anything else is a constant barrage of pessimism, negativity, and fear. That’s not great for your psyche, and it makes you blind to the fact that, all things considered, you probably live in one of the greatest times in human history.

Even if you disagree with that, and you believe we’re living in the end times, wouldn’t you rather spend it doing something that makes you (or other people) happier rather than watching a TV screen?

Aside from sowing the seeds of doubt and despair, one other thing media outlets thrive on is selling you stuff you don’t need. I can’t really blame them for it, either. After all, the only way they can really make money is through advertising revenue, and that’s totally fine. But the fact remains: The more advertising you expose yourself to, the more likely you are to overspend.

Not all ads are during the commercial breaks you skip with your DVR, either. When you constantly hear news stories about Samsung’s newest lineup of smartphones, the best gifts for the season, or the latest advancements in automobile technology, you start to feel like you’re missing out on things you never knew you “needed.”

Staying Informed

For all its flaws, journalism serves a critical role in society, and I’m thankful for the journalists who work tirelessly to shine a light on things that need to be seen. I’m not saying we don’t need the news. I’m just saying it’s probably bad for us to consume news media all day, every day.

Your level of important knowledge about the world will be almost the same if you spend ten minutes a day checking out the headlines, rather than watching an hour or two of nightly news. There is a diminishing return on every extra unit of time spent consuming media. Realizing that, here are a few ways we like to stay informed without going crazy:

For better or worse, we use social media. I don’t know about you, but it’s basically impossible for me to escape the day’s headlines when scrolling Facebook. So, even if I never seek out any journalism, I’m kept aware of the biggest stuff automatically. Because social media serves as a de facto source of news for nearly everyone, it’s important to round out your friends list and the accounts you follow to make sure you’re not getting a completely one-sided view of everything though.

If I am specifically seeking out news, consuming it in written form (i.e. articles) tends to make me cut back on the nonsense. I’ll sit and mindlessly watch four irrelevant broadcast stories waiting for an interesting one to come on, but if I’m reading the news, I have a tendency to just skip straight to the big stuff and move on with my day. If you think about it, this is probably why print media is failing to turn profits — it’s harder to keep you indefinitely engaged like TV can. Ironically, that’s actually a good thing for you.

Maybe you love to follow the news because you enjoy political discussions. Here’s another trick that works really nicely and has a tendency to peel you off the couch: Engage with friends, family, and members of your community about politics. Seek out real people you disagree with. It’ll take some self-restraint and civility, but ultimately, you’ll learn from other people, exercise your brain instead of just absorbing talking points, and make some friends along the way. Actually, some of my best friendships and closest family bonds are with the people I argue with the most.

Photo of a street preacher
Political debates don’t have to look like this.

When you have a civil debate with real people, you’ll often end up debating more interesting philosophical points, rather than just the day’s headlines. It can be refreshing, and it’ll have a tendency to shape you into a sharper, more independent thinker. You’ll probably also come to a deeper understanding of people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, which is something the world could use a little more of.

Live Your Life

The main reason to consume less media overall is probably the simplest: You only have a limited amount of time on this planet.

When you force yourself to look away from the TV screen, you’re much more likely to have thoughts like, “what can I do or create today?” You’ll go outside more, explore more, exercise more, find more time for hobbies, and probably even make more money just by spending your time more productively.

Ask yourself: What would be wrong with your life right now if you stopped watching so much news? What have you really got to lose?

— Steven

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