This is not a political post, but it’s impossible to ignore that a kind of big thing happened yesterday. But, to avoid letting that color my writing, I wrote this post Tuesday morning, before hearing a peep about results or exit polls or any of it. So you now know more about the outcome than I do as I write.
But regardless of the outcome, certainly some people are feeling relieved today, and others are feeling disappointed/sad/angry/terrified/[insert more feelings here]. (Unless the election wasn’t called last night, in which case, can we all just move underground until it’s settled?)
And we may feel the urge to take actions that go along with those feelings: Like posts on Facebook or other social that confirm our feelings. Unfollow people who rant about or celebrate a position counter to our own. Click on news headlines that speak to us, ignore the ones that don’t.
The online landscape has made it easier than ever to self-select our news and information, and while I won’t get into why that’s clearly contributing to the divided feeling in our society (though that’s a hugely important issue, and one I hope we’re all giving a lot of thought), let’s talk about it in retirement terms. Today: why it’s so important to resist the pull of the echo chamber in retirement.
We all know someone who gets most of their news from one source, it’s obvious where they’ll stand on an issue, you know you’re going to get an earful from them, and you kind of shake your head and roll your eyes while they talk. “Okay, sure, whatever you say…”
It’s easy to dismiss those people as a little unhinged, but what they really are is just isolated within their own bubble or echo chamber, where their views get reaffirmed (whatever they are!) and ideas that challenge their thinking get swept aside. And worse, they don’t realize it.
It’s now easier to narrow our stream of information than it is to broaden it, to exclude information that we don’t want to see or think about, and to feed ourselves only on information that confirms our own innate biases. Most of us already do this, without realizing the detrimental effect it has on us, and without realizing that we’re building our own echo chambers.
Retirement only magnifies that effect.
But if we let ourselves get in that bubble – something that can happen awfully quickly — then we become that kooky person that people roll their eyes at. And that’s not just something that we don’t want to imagine for ourselves, it’s also terrible for us psychologically.
The Isolating Effects of Retirement
Say all you want about the downsides of work, at least work forces us to socialize with different people than we might choose to talk to. It gets us out of the house where we’re exposed to different things. It is a conduit to staying at least reasonably connected to a broad swath of popular opinion, especially opinions that aren’t our own.
In the past, some of that function could be served by the general media, in that virtually everyone got their information from the nightly news anchors, who tended to be pretty middle-of-the-road. While it’s undoubtedly a positive for all of us that more voices are involved in generating and sharing ideas now (ahem, bloggers!), it also means that it’s easier than ever before to lose sight of whole swaths of opinion and ideas out there, and to go far down a rabbit hole of insulated thinking without even realizing it.
As we get older, certain parts of our brains shrink, especially the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. That makes tasks like learning new things and reframing our beliefs increasingly difficult. And this is true even in the healthiest brains. So if we get into that rabbit hole/echo chamber/bubble mindset and realize it later, it may be too late to reset our thinking.
So consider what retirement could easily turn into for many of us, if we don’t make a conscious effort to avoid it:
More social isolation because of lack of workplace interaction
News from fewer sources, reaffirming our own biases
Following social media sources we agree with, tuning out those we don’t
A brain that’s getting less and less flexible
Finding it easier to see how any of us could turn into that crazy eye roll-inducing person?
The Benefits of Staying Connected
Isolation is bad. We all know this innately. It’s why we regularly talk about how we will focus on making new friendships in retirement. But here are some additional stats to back this up, and that show that we can be isolated without even realizing it:
Lonely people have less activity in their ventral striatum in the brain, which hampers their ability to learn new information. They also have less activity in their temporoparietal junction, which is associated with empathy. (1)
Socially isolated people have higher blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection and are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Loneliness also gets in the way of sleep, attention and logical reasoning. (2)
Social isolation increases a person’s likelihood of death by 26 percent from all causes, even when people don’t consider themselves lonely. (Social isolation and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely.) (3)
If these seem like extreme effects that don’t apply to “normal” people, reread the list in the previous section. It’s an extremely slippery slope from unfollows and news source selection to social isolation, especially if we get to a place where people are rolling their eyes at us. Because who seeks out the company of someone you don’t find remotely credible? Or even if that person is family or has some other tie that compels you to spend time with them, the person who’s having the eyes rolled at them is still bound to feel invalidated for their views, which is detrimental to self-worth and self-esteem.
What You Can Do to Stay Out of the Bubble
If all of this seems a bit doom-and-gloomy, the good news is that it’s entirely possible to stay out of the bubble, though it does take some effort these days. Sometimes it will mean letting your annoying uncle on the opposite end of the political spectrum stay in your Facebook feed. It may mean watching some news that makes you want to pull your hair out. But it’s worth it – both for you personally, and for this society of ours. Here’s what you can do:
Vary your news sources – Far too many news sources these days are aligned with one “side” or the other, and they make no secret about it. If you primarily get your news from one of them, make a point to read or watch a credible source on the other side regularly, and instead of arguing with everything they say in a knee-jerk way, try to put yourself in the other side’s shoes and think it through. The goal isn’t to change your mind (though maybe you will broaden your perspective), it’s to maintain empathy and to avoid going to a more extreme mindset.
Click links that challenge you – Back when most of us got our information through the nightly news, we had no choice in what news to learn about. It just came at us, and that was that. Now, we have an endless number of links to click on, and research shows that we tend to click the ones that confirm something we already believe. Make a point of choosing news that challenges your world view on a regular basis, and just like with the news sources above, make a real effort to hear the writer out.
Don’t unfollow/unfriend without thinking – I have been as guilty of this as anyone, and have unfollowed or muted almost everyone who has ever ranted about something I disagree with in my Facebook feed. But that ultimately narrows my world, confirms my biases and limits my exposure to challenging ideas that could make me smarter and more mentally nimble. So while we don’t have to engage in pointless debates on social media, it’s not the worst idea to keep exposing yourself to other people’s ideas, and maybe even asking questions from time to time.
Engage with different people – Social interaction is important for your health, and something you should prioritize in retirement, but while you’re at it, you may as well make a point to engage with people different from you. Please from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with different beliefs, with different ways of seeing the world.
What do you think?
Do you think echo chambers are as big a problem as I do? What other ways could we all prevent ourselves from unknowingly falling into one? How else can we stave off social isolation in early retirement? Let’s chat about it all in the comments!