Anger is a fairly useless emotion. According to anger researcher Dr Stephen Laurent, its only possible benefit may be in unskilled fighting. So, what is one to do when met with endless news stories detailing sleaze, scandal and all sorts of other soul-sucking stuff?
Very few problems can be solved by launching into a wild flailing frenzy. When faced with all the big issues in the world, anger is simply not going to help. For some reason however, many of us like to hold on to anger. If we can’t bite, punch or kick, we will stab away at a smartphone (with thumbs annoyingly too large for the tiny letters on the keyboard) and express our righteous fury with scathing, reactive comments. We will scroll through other online comments, discover plenty more to be outraged by and get wound up even further. With anger our constant companion, we will dive down that dark digital rabbit hole, losing ourselves in a world filled with indignation, nastiness and POSTS SHOUTED IN CAPSLOCK.
One of the biggest changes brought about by the information age is our relationship with the news. Suddenly we are consuming far more of it, becoming more tangled up in it and finding ourselves increasingly frustrated.
Examine your own relationship with the news more closely and you may come to some important realisations.
You’re getting more news
Twenty years ago, we weren’t the news junkies we are today. If you didn’t make it home in time for the 6.00pm bulletin, you probably didn’t watch the news. If you got the paper, you may well have started with the sports pages and only occasionally bothered with the serious stuff up front.
If ignorance is bliss, what do you call being constantly informed? Now we have laptops, tablets and smartphones. We have 24 hour news channels, a plethora of online news outlets, multiple social media platforms and an extended network of “friends”, all inviting us to get caught up in the woes of the world.
We are scarily connected. Many of us look at our phones more than 150 times a day. Rarely anymore do we give our minds the time for peaceful contemplation. Instead, in any spare moment, we instinctively reach for a device, examine our feeds and find reasons to be outraged.
Your anger is being cultivated and monetised
All those big media companies love to make you angry. When you’re off frolicking at the beach, baking a delicious cake or taking the dog for a walk, you are not making them money. However, when you’re really angry about something in the news, you click on headlines, share stories, create yet more clickable content and do all those things which generate them revenue.
While media institutions once prided themselves on factual, balanced and sober reporting, the internet completely upended the business model. The approach adopted by many new media enterprises could best be described by an old proverb – “If you want an audience start a fight.”
The surest way to get clicks is to generate outrage. Like any big brother, Google, Facebook and others understand precisely how to get under your skin. With their sophisticated algorithms, you can be sure your news feed will forever be filled with the stuff most likely to make you mad.
You’re not just watching the news anymore
Comment. Like. Share. Pick a side. Join the angry mob. Tweet along while some detestable loud-mouths talk over the top of each other on yet another annoying panel show. Can’t stand it anymore? Scream into the digital void. Hear some ill-informed idiot screaming back, calling you a Nazi.
No longer is the news something we passively receive. Now we are talking back, questioning it, mocking it and getting into fights with anyone who thinks differently. Where once we would have rolled our eyes at an annoying news story and simply moved on, we can now spend hours upon hours sloshing about in an online cesspit of reaction, growing ever more furious and exasperated.
There’s an endless stream of things to be angry about
Some days you wake up, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and everything seems right with the world… then you turn on the news. Perhaps a bomb has been dropped on a hospital. Maybe an animal has just been pronounced extinct. Or possibly your least favourite politician has just said something shockingly racist/sexist/homophobic/insensitive/stupid/all of the above.
Suddenly everything doesn’t seem right in the world. Instead it can all feel hopelessly broken. Unfortunately, with 7.6 billion people in this world it is a statistical inevitability that at any given point some of them will be doing really bad things. The news continuously extracts the worst of humanity and dumps it directly in our feeds. In quick succession you may read about evil dictators, drunk pilots, paedophile priests and an endless stream of other messed up stuff, which has the power to shift your mood into a useless, angry state.
So, how do you deal with it all?
You could always ditch your devices, crawl into a cave and wait it out until all the world’s problems have all been solved. If hermit life isn’t for you however, there are a number of other ways to better manage your relationship with the news.
1. Practise engaging your wise mind
The news can serve as a starting pistol for your reactive mind, taking you from calm to angry in an instant. The first step in engaging your wise mind is to simply become aware of your reactive response. Only when you recognise you are getting angry, will you be able to pause, take a deep breath and use your wise mind to decide exactly what to do next. In the wise words of Ice Cube “you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
2. Tame the tangle
Some news stories will cause your reactive mind to become extremely wound up Before you know it, you will have read six articles on the same topic, watched three videos, scrolled through hundreds of comments and vented your outrage across multiple social media platforms. When you find yourself in this situation there are a number of questions you can ask yourself. Is this useful? Is this just my reactive mind going into overdrive? Should I perhaps eat my breakfast now, instead of sharing yet another sarcastic meme?
3. Understand your sphere of influence
Most stories in the media are about things over which you have no control. Sadly, you can’t vote in foreign elections, stop earthquakes or time travel to prevent horrible car accidents. When we feel powerless to change bad news, it can ramp up our feelings of unease. The more we crave control, the more these feelings can grow. When things are beyond our sphere of influence, it is far better to recognise this and remind ourselves that worrying about them is futile.
4. Take valued actions
If you care deeply about something it can be very helpful to take actions in line with your values (please note, venting with a series of angry, reactive social media posts, may not actually qualify as taking valued action). When you engage your wise mind, you can develop a considered response and take actions that may make a real difference, no matter how small. You may decide to donate to a charity, write a letter to your member of parliament or offer your support to someone who is already making a difference. You may decide to take no action at all – and that’s okay. As much as we may love to solve all the word’s problems, we must sometimes reserve our energy and focus on those values most important to us.
5. Maintain a balanced media diet
We have before us an all you can eat buffet. We can loosen the belt and chow down until we are sick or we can be selective and show a little restraint. Just like picking healthy food from the junk, we must discern the difference between news content which aims to provoke and polarise and that which aims to inform and build understanding. It is also wise not to devour it all unthinkingly. It helps to remain critical, challenge our own biases and allow for the fact that we may not know the full story.
6. Remember that people are resilient
Our empathy makes it very hard to see others enduring traumatic, tragic events. We place ourselves in the same situation and instantly imagine feeling devastated or unable to cope. We think only of the immediate horrible downsides, yet fail to factor in that people can bounce back and often experience post-traumatic growth. While traumatic events typically involve a great loss, they can also lead people to examine what’s truly important, pursue goals in line with their values and fully appreciate all that’s good in life.
7. Take something positive from the news
Whenever you are incensed, outraged and appalled, take a moment to consider why. It’s highly likely that you are a good person, with good values. You may care deeply about things like justice, fairness and basic human decency. In our digitally connected world, you can now be sure you are not alone.
While it may not always feel like we are making progress, the work of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrates that in a very short time span humans have advanced to become far less violent and far more collaborative. By shining a light into dark corners, the media continues to progress this positive change. Instead of just registering our outrage at the news, it serves us well to register our achievements and find hope. Embracing a sense of optimism can be a powerful protective force.