If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up,…or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter,—we never need read another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for myriad instances and applications? — Henry David Thoreau
As people are wont to do around this time of year, I suspect many of you have one or two, or perhaps ten, resolutions that you’ve come up with as we begin the journey into 2016. Some of these may be things that you want to learn, things that you want to get better at, or things that you’d like to avoid completely.
If I may, I’d like to add one more thing to your list of habits to break:
Now, you’re probably thinking, But Peter, I don’t waste time blabbing around the watercooler or talking behind people’s backs. Great! I’m glad you don’t. But that’s not exactly the type of gossip I’m talking about.
Let me explain.
What is gossip?
According to my desktop dictionary gossip is “easy or unconstrained talk or writing especially about persons or social incidents.”1
On the surface, this definition speaks to the traditional high school locker-room or watercooler-type gossip. Fortunately, most of us don’t have the time to pay attention to matters as trivial and irrelevant as what Mike said about Sarah or who Neil brought home last night, and because this type of gossip can be downright harmful, we do our best to avoid it, leaving it to the busybodies and gossipmongers among us.
But there’s another type of gossip that’s equally damaging to our wellbeing; in fact, I’d argue that it’s even more destructive because many of us aren’t even aware that we’re consuming it.
You probably know this type of gossip as the news, but it also includes that “Trending” panel on Facebook, a lot of what you’ll find on YouTube, and virtually anything else that occurs outside of your sphere of influence.
Case in point:
A terrorist attack halfway around the world?! Let me put aside everything I had planned for this afternoon so I can catch every update on CNN even though I have no intention of ever travelling to that part of the world nor do I know anyone there!
While that might be a bit of an extreme example, many people do spend a significant amount of their time reading newsmagazines or browsing news sites every day.
Why? Because it’s expected of us.
From a young age, I was taught that it was my civic duty to stay informed, to know what was happening in the world around me. How else could I be a productive member of society if I didn’t stay abreast of everything that was happening on planet earth?
While I’m not advocating that you should go about your day in total, blissful ignorance, there are a few reasons why you may want to pay less attention to the gossip in your life.
So, why should I avoid gossip?
I thought you’d never ask! Here are but a few reasons why you may want to reconsider opening up that morning paper:
1. Gossip makes you stressed out
Gossip, and especially mainstream news media, is often sensationalized to an absurd degree (how else could you get people interested in the trivial and mundane?). In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, the commonplace becomes exceptional and the far off is beamed direct to your living room in real-time (or close to it).
The constant barrage of gossip we face each day takes a toll on our wellbeing. We watch, listen, and read stories about bombings, landslides, and stock-market crashes, among other things. As we continually consume all of these reports, they begin to influence our thoughts.
A dive in the Shanghai Stock Exchange and our mind races to thoughts about the security of our own investments; an account of a kidnapping in South America and we immediately think of our upcoming trip abroad; even an earthquake thousands of kilometres away can make us fear for our own safety inside of our homes.
Not convinced? A recent study showed that people who were repeatedly exposed to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings were more stressed than those who had actually lived through the bombings first-hand. Talk about gossip overload.
There are certainly times when you should pay attention to the news media, say, if you live in an area prone to forest fires and it’s been an exceptionally dry summer, but the vast majority of news stories have no direct bearing on your safety or wellbeing, so why invite unnecessary stress into your life?
2. Gossip will turn you into a pessimist
Negative news sells newspapers. Accidents, failures, corruption, and disasters all get front page coverage while stories on more uplifting events hardly get a mention.
Journalists report negative news partly because shootings and bankruptcies are more compelling to write about. It’s more dramatic and entertaining to hear of things going awry in an instant than the gradual slog of success. But we’re also partly to blame for the 90% of the news that takes a gloomy bent.
We’ve evolved from a time when every shrub housed a possible threat and each day on the savanna was potentially our last. The emotional response to the myriad dangers that surrounded our early forebears manifests itself in the sensation of fear. There’s even a part of our brain, the amygdala, responsible for triggering our fight or flight response to perceived danger.
When encountering a hungry predator, this all worked wonderfully well for our cousin Homo erectus; however, the hazards that threaten the modern Homo sapiens are much less immediate, yet we’re still hardwired to give more weight to perceived dangers than to, say, a new treatment for a deadly disease.
Our physiology ensures that we have a negativity bias, and that’s a good thing; it’s helped us survive the past 200,000 years, but the sheer amount of negativity we experience today not only makes us more stressed but has a detrimental effect on our thoughts and our actions.
Focusing on positive thoughts has benefits far beyond a happy and more optimistic attitude, so stop feeding your primal instincts and start focusing on what’s good in the world.
3. Gossip reduces the amount of time you have to spend on the things that actually matter
Your friends and family, your relationships and financial security, your health and wellbeing: these are all things that tend to matter in life, yet gossip does nothing to better any of them.
When was the last time you read a news article or a trending Facebook post that substantially contributed to any one of those areas in your life? I’m guessing never.
Spending even half an hour a day watching a nightly newscast or catching up on your favourite news blog equates to 3.5 hours a week, 15 hours a month, and over 180 hours a year, not counting the time it’ll take you to refocus and get back into a productive mindset afterward.
Our willpower and attention spans lessen throughout the day, making our ability to focus a precious and scarce resource. Instead of spending your dwindling attention on events that you have no control over, why not pick up a skill that you’ve always wanted to learn? You’d be amazed how quickly you reach your goals when you practise something every day, even for as little as 30 minutes.
There’s always going to an endless glut of information available at your fingertips, and while we can’t absorb all of it, we can be selective about what we do choose to acquire and what choose to pass on. If you’re looking to spend your time more productively, skip CNN and try these: Alsion, Creative Live, Coursera, Khan Acadamy, Ted, SkillShare, Udemy.
4. Gossip kills your creativity
Gossip is remarkably good at turning our brains to mush and is designed to discourage any deep thinking: newscasts are fast paced, full of sensational imagery, and rarely delve beneath the superficial surface of the issue at hand. Even the inverted pyramid structure used by print journalists ensures that while we’re equipped with the basics after reading the first paragraph or two, the rest of the article rarely provides us with any meaningful knowledge that may allow us to form deeper insights on events.
Creative thinking requires us to look at the world in new ways, to make connections, and to be open to the impossible. Gossip does the opposite; it reinforces our worldview, promotes the passive consumption of information, and discourages us from thinking and living in unconventional ways.
If you want to invite creativity into your life, be anything but static, be spontaneous, try new things, experiment, and most importantly, stop letting others tell you how to think and feel.
5. Gossip doesn’t teach you anything (useful)
Many of us have been made to believe that to be successful contributing members of society, we must stay informed of as much of the happenings in the world as possible; that’s utter poppycock.
People delude themselves into believing there’s inherent value in staying up-to-date with all the gossip in their lives, but the Saturday edition of your local newspaper is no more edifying than Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
If gossip teaches us anything, it’s that the world is a big scary place filled with hate, anger, and danger. There are terrorists lurking around every corner and everyone has it out for you. Gossip offers us one specific worldview and one that I argue isn’t at all representative of the real world. It feeds our fears (founded or unfounded) and rarely attempts to explain anything.
Yes, staying informed is important, but it’s also important to actively choose to stay informed of things that have a direct bearing on your goals and wellbeing. Each of us has the power to think and act as we see fit, so instead of feeding into endless negativity, approach the world with unfiltered eyes.
Gossip is simply another form of entertainment, and if you approach it as such, you’ll be just fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with watching reality TV, cruising YouTube, or catching up with the nightly news, but it’s important to take a deliberate approach to choosing what types of information you consume and what influences you’re comfortable with in your life.
If you do have room for one more New Year’s resolution, I challenge you to eschew the gossip in your life and enjoy a happier, healthier New Year.
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality. — Henry David Thoreau
- From The Canadian Oxford Dictionary 2nd ed. to be exact. ↩