A few months ago, as I was wrapping up the next day’s work preparations and shutting down my electronics for the evening, I noticed a new email in my inbox.
It was a New York Times News Alert informing me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The brief email offered few details but informed me that President Obama would be appearing on TV imminently with an announcement.
Compelled, I clicked the link to the promised live-video stream and waited, looking at a placeholder screen and this message:
The White House has announced that President Barack Obama will address the American people in the next few minutes. When Mr. Obama begins speaking, his remarks will appear in this live video stream from the White House Web site.
Wow, I thought. Historic moment. I should watch this.
A minute ticked by. As I waited, I began reading the headlines of related articles. I perused the page’s unrelated live Twitter feed about Syria. I reread the placeholder message to see if anything had changed. I started thinking about hitting social media or turning on the radio to see what else was being said about the breaking news of bin Laden’s demise.
And then, I thought better of it.
I reminded myself of a commitment that I’d made almost a decade ago in the wake of another major news event — 9/11. My commitment: to become a more discerning and conscious consumer of media.
To me, that means making thoughtful choices about what I watch, read and listen to. It means noticing how I wind up giving my attention to various media streams, and why. It means being aware of the impact my media habits are having on me, and on those around me.
It especially means noticing when I am getting sucked in by something I hadn’t planned to. And it often means turning off or tuning out media — from TV and radio to books, magazines, Web and social-media content — that I find irrelevant, unhelpful, or inconsistent with what I deem to be the best use of my focus and time.
It does not necessarily mean always looking away from things that I find disturbing, surprising or provocative, but it does mean evaluating whether I am being catalyzed to grow and respond constructively, or merely being bombarded in a way that leaves me feeling helpless, hopeless and disempowered.
Over the course of the past decade, I’ve found that this approach to monitoring my media intake has served me well, and it has saved me countless hours of frustration and distraction.
Contrary to some of my early fears, I have not ceased to be a reasonably well-informed individual. Nor have I lost all touch with civilized society. What I’ve done instead is reserve my media time and bandwidth for information that matters to me; experiences that sync with my values and priorities; amusements that entertain, inspire and delight me; inquiries that inform my perspectives; and explorations that empower me to better understand and contribute to my world.
In the scheme of everything else I want to do and experience in my lifetime, I have limited time and focus even for media that meets these high standards. And so it happened that on this particular evening, presented with this particular media option, I considered my commitment and made my decision: I turned off the computer and went to bed.
Here are some of the factors that influenced my choice that night — and that figure into a lot of my media decisions these days:
1. Triggers and appetite: What is enticing or tempting me to tune in to this particular stream of media now, and how do I feel about that?
Although I initially felt that I “should” watch (presumably so that I’d be up to date on a matter of national importance), in truth, I think the offer of the televised announcement mostly appealed to my prurient curiosity and reflexive instincts. It was the media equivalent of an unconscious, impulsive food binge. Did I really want or need to watch this? Would any good likely come of my watching it now? No.
2. Timing and flow: What is going on in my world that makes this an appropriate, potentially rewarding media choice — or conversely, a conflicted and potentially disruptive one?
I was on my way to bed when I got the News Alert email, and I was glad to have received it. I realized a few moments into my investigation, though, that if I chose to wait up for the president’s live address, I might wind up waiting for quite a while — and that every moment I spent on the edge of my seat would only enhance my sense of keyed-up investment in needing to know as much as possible as quickly as possible. That vibe would likely interfere with my other real-life priorities and intentions — like spending time with my husband and getting some much-needed rest.
3. Consequences/alternatives: What is the likely outcome of my decision to tune in to — or out of — this media option at this time? How is it affecting me?
Although this was certainly a unique, once-in-a-lifetime media event, I surmised that I was unlikely to learn much of great importance from the late-night televised address that I wouldn’t just as quickly learn the next morning (when I’d probably also get more complete, thoughtful reporting, and a more layered sense of background). If I chose to wait and watch, there was also a good chance that I’d be sucked into all kinds of pre- and post-event media chatter that I hadn’t planned on consuming and that really wasn’t terribly relevant to me at this moment. Getting wrapped up in it would not likely provoke me to do anything helpful and would probably leave me feeling overstimulated, distracted and upset.
4. Significance/value: Does this material have real importance, relevance or value to me personally?
Although I certainly considered the information to be significant, I already knew the most essential and relevant piece of it, which was that bin Laden was dead. Part of me was already struggling to digest and make sense of that bit of data. Piling more data on top of it — presumably things like circumstances, nature and timing of the raid — was not likely to help me integrate my thoughts and feelings, only to distract me from them.
Ultimately, based on all these factors and more, I decided that rather than waiting for the streaming video or surfing the Web in search of more info, I was better off observing a moment of silence, taking stock of my own internal reaction to the news I already had, and then getting some sleep so that I could wake up ready to process the next day’s inevitable media onslaught from a more centered place.
If this sounds like an awful lot of thought to put into a single media decision, well, it is. Learning to consume media this way does not necessarily come naturally, particularly in this culture, where media, like food, is everywhere, all the time.
That’s why learning to be conscious of one’s media consumption is a valuable skill, a personal practice that — much like learning how to eat consciously and healthfully — is essential to living well. (It’s also why “Consume Media Wisely” is honored as No. 74 of my 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy.)
The good news: With time and practice, the process of making conscious decisions about media becomes increasingly quick and instinctive.
Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that the specific reflections and choices I made in this case were the only good or right ones. Nor am I recommending them to everybody in every situation. But I do think we can all benefit from being more discerning about our media intake — particularly if we value our physical, emotional and mental health, to say nothing of our time.
Why? Because as many health-and-happiness experts have pointed out, just like the food we eat, the media we consume have a direct impact on our energy, attitude and well-being. Whether or not we are aware of it, what we watch, read and listen to can profoundly affect the way we think, feel and respond to people and situations in our own lives.
Meanwhile, if you’ve never embarked on a “media diet” before, it’s the one kind of diet I’d encourage you to think about trying. A period of consciously limiting one’s media intake, or just being especially thoughtful about the TV/video/film, radio/audio, Internet/Web and reading one chooses to partake of can be incredibly insight-provoking.
Be forewarned, though: The choices are not always simple. On the evening in question, there was a part of me that felt disoriented by the news of bin Laden’s death, and I felt what I imagine is a natural urge to re-tether to a common reality by hooking into the mass-media stream.
There was another part of me, though — I think a wiser part — that was urging me to just sit with my own thoughts and feelings and then go to bed as I had planned.
As I noted, I began reconsidering my media habits during the aftermath of 9/11 — a time during which, out of our sense of helplessness, outrage and horror, millions of us were glued continuously to the television for days at a time.
We watched an endless, repeating barrage of appalling images and listening to disjointed, almost content-less reporting — as if somehow, by sheer repetition and our willingness to take it in, we could glean a fuller understanding of what had befallen our country.
We did this, I think, in part out of some sense of civic duty — a well-meaning desire to show solidarity by willingly co-experiencing the disaster and sharing in the collective dismay. But instead, I think a great many of us wound up overwhelmed, freaked out and mired in dramatic details — to the point that we were no good to anyone, including our own families, friends, neighbors and children, much less community causes and charity.
And meanwhile, even as millions of media hours were being compulsively consumed, an alarming percentage of our citizenry somehow missed the news that the 9/11 attacks had nothing at all to do with Iraq or Saddam Hussein. Even a media decade later, a great many of us aren’t much better informed about the political, social and economic issues that gave rise to those tragic events, much less to ongoing wars that have followed.
It’s with all this in mind that, ever since 9/11, I’ve taken the opportunity to put conscious media choices into practice for myself.
I now follow these same general principles not only in times of high-drama news, but whenever I’m presented with media that’s just “there” — streaming from the omnipresent TVs in waiting rooms, diners, bars and airports; flashing across digital billboards; beckoning from magazine racks and newsstands; and blaring from media-equipped fuel pumps, bathroom stalls and taxi cabs.
In all these situations, I make it my goal not to allow random media streams to wash over me, but, rather, to choose — to really decide — what, when and how much I watch, read and listen to, and to remember that my choices have a real influence not just on my knowledge base, but also on my health, happiness and quality of life.
For better or worse, just as the foods we put into our bodies become the raw materials from which our energy is generated and our bodily tissues are repaired, the media we consume become part of the neurological substrate that informs our mindset, moods, belief systems, relationships — our very sense of identity.
A body of emerging neurological, psychological and immunity-focused research suggests that our media intake can powerfully affect both our mental priming (see Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.’s work on positivity and its response to media intake) and our physical vitality (see David C. McClelland, Ph.D. and Carol Kirshnit, Ph.D.’s work on immune changes in response to watching two different films).
That’s a little scary, because if we gave even a little attention to the quality of television, movies, video, radio, reading, gaming and Internet fodder that we take in on any given day, I suspect a lot of us would find that we are mindlessly munching on the equivalent of junk food, or worse.
So if you haven’t reflected on your media choices lately, I hope you will. And if you’ve already decided to upgrade your media diet, I congratulate you. You’ll be getting a whole body-mind-life upgrade in the bargain.