Reject “Comfort Media”
We derive a visceral thrill and probably a dopamine rush from reading things that affirm what we already believe. This is especially true of emotional subjects like religion and politics. “Opinion porn,” if I may, delivers the same kind of repetitive thrill as binge eating. It provides the head-nodding jolt of seeing your imagined adversaries taken down and your team score another touchdown.
Beware of this pattern. The repeat-intake of opinioneering stifles original thought even as you believe you are receiving more and more insight. (Hint: insight doesn’t arrive in quantity.) In actuality, bingeing on opinion-affirming media is an emotional and physical fix more than an intellectual one, even though the tools are words, facts, and arguments. It is ersatz learning, no more nutritious to your intellect than consuming a bag of chips is to your body — and probably with equivalent health costs over time.
The thrill of familiar victory, the smackdown of the other side drives millions of clicks to political blogs and online journals. Yes, some facts and news bits get dispensed along the way; but the real draw is the feeling you get when once again pulling the polemical slots handle and re-upping the excitement that accompanies being right.
Set a goal to pull the plug on habitually reading opinion-adjacent news or political media. Reject “comfort media.” That doesn’t mean a news or opinion blackout. Nor does it mean supplementing your intake with material you disagree with, which itself may have no special value. Rather, it means choosing quality over quantity in your current-events reading.
I keep up with politics and current events. I check several news sites, chiefly The New York Times, often a few times day. I skim Fox News just to see what bullshit they are feeding their audience. In full disclosure, I read the daily horoscope in the New York Post. (I like astrologer Sally Brompton, what can I tell you?) If friends or my kids send me news links, I often read them. But I make little time for commentary or opinion blogs. I virtually never watch video links people send me. I have zero time for most smackdown clips or anything close. Cumulatively it’s just too great a time suck.
How do you know when you’re imbibing comfort media? Repetition. It’s when the argument is one you’ve read before and are reading again to restore a sense of validation.
For example, many social critics today, from bestselling writers to bloggers, write “take down” pieces about The Secret (now fourteen years old!) and New Age culture with almost habitual regularity. It’s easy. You can always poke holes in ethereal claims and shout “confirmation bias” (without asking whether you’ve applied the principle to yourself). And it’s old. Iconic social and literary critic H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) took mind metaphysics for numerous trips to the woodshed more than a century ago. For example, on December 3, 1910 the columnist wrote a piece called “Mental Vibrations” in the Baltimore Evening Sun:
The New Thought, that fantastic magic, goes marching on…There is, in brief, little if any truth in the belief that good wishes may be transformed into objective phenomena, that mind influences matter — and little, even, in the belief that mind influences mind. Actors and opera singers often do their worst work in the presence of absurdly friendly crowds, and their best in the presence of crowds which sit silent and unmoved.
The critic added: “As a matter of fact, the very best efforts of many men, perhaps of the majority of those men whose efforts are worth anything at all, are inspired by opposition as much as by huzzahs.” As a “believing historian” of alternative spirituality, I agree with him on that count; but my definition of New Thought is not really positive thinking in the see-no-evil sense as it is determined thinking. As I’ve widely explored, I believe that thoughts possess causative properties and that life operates under both physical and extra-physical principles. We live under many laws and forces. What’s more, in matters of personal philosophy I look twice at rejected stones. As carpenters say: measure twice, cut once.
Of course, none of this means I’m right and the Baltimore Bard is wrong. It means that if conceptually you’ve read it before, ask: is worth it? Do we need one more article (or book) to decry what Mencken laid his formidable glove more than a century ago? Generally speaking, unless a social or political critique is notably fresh or urgent, it’s comfort media.
Use this as a guideline: if you are spending more than two hours a day reading or viewing news-related content, you are likely wasting valuable time. It probably isn’t necessary to spend more than a couple of hours a day, give or take, to stay informed. (Unless there’s a special event, like a presidential debate.) More than that, I venture, is task-avoidance and frivolity rather than productivity and learning.
Consider the possibilities of freeing up the time you spend on comfort-zone media — it could easily be one, two, or even three hours a day. What would you do with that time? You could exercise, meditate, cook, work, spend time with a loved one, or read something of lasting quality.
Participate in the culture and not the commentary.
This article adapted from the author’s forthcoming book The Miracle Month.