I just read Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose Ourselves and Find Ourselves. It’s a series of essays by a practicing psychotherapist about some of his observations about human nature.
In his discussion of one patient’s experiences, Grosz observes,
“There are various ways to circumvent depressed, anxious feelings… It’s not uncommon to use some large scale calamity, or someone else’s personal disaster — the newspapers are full of both — to distract oneself from one’s own destructive impulses.”
I was particularly struck by this passage, because I’ve noticed the same pattern, in the realm of habits.
When trying to stick to a good habit, many people are challenged by the dangerous allure of “potato-chip news.” Potato-chip news is news that’s repetitive, requires little effort to absorb, and is consumable in massive quantities: true crime, natural disasters, political punditry, celebrity and sports gossip, or endless photographs of beautiful houses, food, clothes, or people.
Its information is usually sensationalized to carry the maximum emotional effect — to make people feel shocked, frightened, envious, outraged, insecure, or indignant.
Most of us enjoy potato-chip news occasionally — to track the Oscars or the Olympics, for instance. But those who regularly spend hours indulging in it may find they’re angry with themselves for devoting so much time to it and distraught by what they’re watching, yet unable to step away.
I hadn’t thought about the fact that perhaps people use potato-chip news as a way to manage anxiety or other negative emotions, but that rings true to me. What do you think?
Potato-chip news matters for habits for two reasons:
First, many people consider spending excessive time on potato-chip news as a bad habit in itself. Also, it can inflame other bad habits, because people get so agitated by it that they lose self-command and turn to bad habits for comfort.
One person wrote, “I was so worried about the election that I ate half a pan of peanut-butter brownies in front of CNN.” It’s important to follow the presidential election, of course, but still, we need to deal with remote events in ways that don’t derail our attempts to manage ourselves.
As always, for habits, it’s important to make sure that the things that we do to make ourselves feel better don’t end up making us feel worse.
So the question becomes: What do you do if you find yourself attracted potato-chip news, in a way that’s not helpful?
In Better Than Before, I identify all the strategies that can be deployed to master our habits, and in this situation, the Strategy of Distraction can be of particular help. By mindfully shifting attention away from potato-chip news, people can break free from its time-sucking, de-energizing grip.
You can read a novel, play with a dog, do Sudoku, anything to pull away from the screen. Sometimes people limit themselves to written news accounts (which tend to have more information and less sensation) or establish time limits, to manage their desire to consume potato-chip news.
How about you? Do you feel the appeal of this kind of news? If so, have you found any good ways to manage it?