When you set out to write a research-based book on early retirement, you very quickly come to a conclusion that’s obvious to anyone who’s ever done in-depth research about retirement in any form: the people who are unhappy in retirement tend to be that way for only a very short list of reasons.
There are those who are unhappy because they don’t have enough money, of course. That should be everyone approaching or contemplating retirement’s number one concern, because money covers all the basic necessities of life. Then there are those who harbor lingering bitterness over their careers, for any number of reasons, like that they got forced out before they were ready, or they felt underpaid or mistreated over a long period. And then, perhaps most surprisingly, there are those who are unhappy in retirement because it makes them feel disconnected from the world, like they don’t matter.
Like it or not, work provides enormous social and psychic benefit to most of us. You get the benefit of feeling like you’re contributing in some way to society, even if it’s just in a small corner of your organization. (Many retirees report not appreciating that contribution until after they stopped making it, FYI.) You are forced to stay current with what’s happening in your field and in the world, if for no better reason than to have some clue what people are talking about in the lunch room.
And when you take that away, there’s a void left behind. That void is relatively easy to fill, of course, if you know that you need to do it. But if you don’t, or – worse – if you deliberately choose to leave that void in place by tuning out from the world on purpose, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of lower happiness and perhaps even lower longevity. Science tells us so. (Keep reading for specifics.)
The productivity bros love to talk these days about a “low-information diet,” a concept popularized by Tim Ferriss in The Four-Hour Work Week, and while its appeals are obvious, its effects are not nearly as positive as many may promise, especially in retirement. Let’s talk about why.
Psst! For those of you attending Camp FI Midwest, or who just lives near the Twin Cities, Carl (Mr. 1500) from 1500 Days and I are co-hosting a meetup Thursday, August 23, 2018, at Minnehaha Park. We’ll start around 6 on the picnic lawn (look for my bright red hair), and then around 8:30 we’ll migrate downtown to Brit’s Pub to join forces with another FIer meetup that’s going to the state fair. Bring something to sit on and whatever you’d like to consume to the park meetup if you’re attending that portion.
About the Low-Information Diet
The low-information diet is the straightforward idea that you choose not to consume most news, social media and the like, in the interest of being more productive, living a simpler life or just not taking on the stress of negative news. All completely valid reasons!
The low-information diet became a popular thing to talk about in the early retirement community in 2013 after Mr. Money Mustache wrote about it. And in Pete’s version of the diet, you tune out all daily news altogether under the belief that “none of it affects you.” (I take massive issue with that assumption, as should any early retiree who cares about your ability to buy health insurance, or about whether the Federal Reserve Bank, which sets monetary policy and influences how long recessions last, becomes more politicized, just to use two self-serving examples. But my disagreement with Pete is not the point of this post. And to be fair, he does recommend reading books and says he reads The Economist every once in a while, which is better than nothing.)
As usual, the farther the idea travels from Mr. Money Mustache, the more extreme it becomes, and recently I’ve seen an uptick in early retirement community members talking about tuning out all news altogether, along with anything remotely controversial on Twitter, which is not what either Tim Ferriss or Pete were suggesting. But regardless of where the idea came from, it’s not actually good for us.
The Urge to Tune Out Is Normal, But News Isn’t Actually Bad for Us
Most of us can understand this impulse to tune out, of course. Despite the fact that we live in the safest and most peaceful time in human history, it’s also a time when we feel surrounded by negative news. Almost seven in 10 of us are feeling news fatigue, according to Pew Research. Last year, the American Psychological Association found that the future of the nation is the largest source of stress for Americans, ahead of money and work (!!), and that we’re at our highest collective stress level ever. (Talk about bummer news.) We’re also feeling more polarized as a country, and social media can often devolve quickly into troll attacks and vicious arguments.
But just because we feel like news is the source of our stress or anxiety doesn’t make it so. One study conducted at Washington University found that, to the authors’ surprise, “Cable news watching had no effect on psychological stress, physiological stress, or cognitive function. This remained true even if the news exposures were discordant with participants’ political affiliation. We conclude that brief cable news watching does not induce a physiological or subjective stress response or cognitive impairment among healthy older adults.” Another study from Texas A&M found that watching news from a viewpoint different than yours might raise your cortisol levels (the stress hormone), but that the effect was within the totally normal range of fluctuation for daily cortisol levels.
Wanting to turn it all off is a normal response. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best one.
The Science On What Humans Need Socially
As humans, we crave a number of levels of social connections. I’ve written plenty of times before that those who live longest and are happiest and healthiest in those years are people who have strong social connections. (That’s why I urge everyone approaching or living in early retirement to think seriously about how you’ll make new friends.) In terms of those social connections, we crave love and family, but we also crave community outside the family.
Robert S. Weiss’s excellent book The Experience of Retirement (h/t to J.D. Roth for bringing the book to my attention), taken from his multi-year ethnographic study of a large sample of people before, during and after retirement, states that those who rely too heavily on a spouse, children or extended family for their social connections in retirement end up less happy, while those who are happiest have both close family connections and a social circle outside of family in which they feel like they belong and feel valued. Nancy Schlossberg’s book Revitalizing Retirement connects the dots between a critical human need – to matter – and our connectedness outside our own homes and families. (If you’re thinking, “This is about traditional retirement. It doesn’t apply to me, an early retiree,” reconsider. They both looked at a range of people in many different circumstances, and the only thing in common was that all had left work. That applies to early retirees, too.) Per Schlossberg’s research, we want to matter to people even after we’ve left work, and that requires staying relevant in some way.
To summarize what that research tells us: We all have the desire to feel that we matter to people who aren’t a part of our family, people who exist in the outside world, which requires staying relevant in the context of the larger world.
And what does it mean to “matter” or to “stay relevant”? It means that people seek out your opinion. They care what you have to say. They value your input. They notice when you’re not around. It’s one thing to tune out when you’re working – which is what Tim Ferriss was doing when he proposed it – or to tune out when millions of people care what you have to say – as Pete did – but quite another when you neither have work to keep you current nor throngs of adoring fans hanging on your every word. For most of us to stay relevant, we must have a clue what’s going on in the world, or we risk very quickly turning into that sketchy uncle with weird, half-informed opinions that no one really wants to talk to.
Removing work from your life shrinks your social universe, and while every single one of us on the early retirement path might argue that it’s a worthwhile trade-off, it’s still worth being honest about what we’re exchanging for more free time. If, in addition to removing a lot of our social interaction from our lives when we leave work, we also unplug from what’s happening in the world, we run the risk of living in an incredibly small world mentally. Drunk Uncle lives in that small world. Don’t join him there.
You Can’t Learn What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know
An essential piece of long-term happiness is lifelong learning. Leaving work should not be the end of learning new things, but only the beginning. And most early retirees have a long list of things they want to learn about. But there are also so many topics out there that we don’t even know we don’t know about, and if you’re shutting yourself off from much new information, you don’t give yourself a chance to realize that you might be interested in a topic and wish to learn more. This not knowing what we don’t know is called “hypocognition,” and we all experience it. The realization many men have had during the #MeToo movement, for example, that women have a very different experience in the world than most men ever realize, is a cultural moment of realizing that we’d had some hypocognition in the past. An excellent article on hypocognition by Kaidu Wu and David Dunning in Scientific American provides this perfect anecdote:
In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.
The islanders of Martinique in 1806 didn’t know what they didn’t know: that ice cream is the best thing ever. And they missed the chance to learn about the deliciousness of ice cream because they couldn’t compute what ice was. And they had no way to find out about new things that could have broadened their horizons in those days. But we do now. So long as you don’t disconnect yourself from them.
Staying Tuned In Keeps You Grateful and Empathetic (Which Keeps You Healthy and Happy)
In my day-to-day life, I mostly encounter people a lot like me. I see people shopping at the store, and if I’m shopping at Whole Foods, they are never using food stamps. I see people out on the trails who have time for leisure, or who can afford a mountain bike. In our neighborhood, we see people who can afford homes in a pricey ski town, and who can also afford to drive cars that aren’t 20 or more years old. I rarely see a homeless person in the towns around Tahoe. In other words, there’s very little socioeconomic diversity apparent to me in my “real world” life.
That’s true for most people. Most of us live in communities in which everyone is within a fairly narrow socioeconomic range. And when everyone around you looks similar, it’s easy to start taking things for granted. It’s easy to assume that it’s not a big deal to own a nice home, or to have financial security or even to be early retired. None of which is true. And while I’d also argue that it’s important for those of us with financial means to stay engaged in society to help make it better (because who else will besides those with time and resources?), looking at it from a purely self-serving perspective, there’s good reason to stay plugged in just to get a glimpse into the lives of others at different rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Because when we do, we are more likely to feel grateful for what we have, and gratitude is strongly linked to increased happiness and health in multiple scientific studies. And staying in tune with the experiences of those not like us also keeps us or makes us more empathetic, which helps us deal with stress more effectively.
But You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
Very few things in life are all good or all bad, but the low-information diet proponents can sometimes fall into this either/or thinking instead of seeing the shades of gray. “If all this news is making me feel stressed out, then no news must be the answer!” (It’s not.) The answer is very likely not no news, but simply consuming less.
Most of the stories about news causing stress bury the lead, which is that it’s not news inherently that stresses us out, it’s the around-the-clock news obsession and the onslaught we feel especially when watching cable news. It’s easy to mistake this article as saying that it’s bad to read the news, but it’s really saying it’s bad to read the news constantly.
How You Can Guard Against the Negatives of News and Social Media Without Tuning Out Entirely
While it’s important to stay engaged in what’s happening in the world – Relevance! Gratitude! Empathy! More opportunity to learn! – that doesn’t mean it’s healthy to engage with news and social media with no limits. So whether you feel news is a productivity suck you wish to cut out of your life or you just feel overwhelmed by all the bad news, here’s how you can stay tuned in without losing your sanity or your focus:
Avoid TV news – Of all forms of news, TV news is that most likely to make us anxious, even if the effect is only temporary. It’s also most likely to pump up non-stories to fill time, to practice sensationalism and alarmism, and to make it sound like some freakish thing that happened to one person COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. In addition, research shows that repeatedly seeing violent images like you do when you consume news via TV (or via mobile video) can both induce trauma and desensitize us to violence and ideas of it. So you can and should tune out all TV and video news without guilt. Instead, focus on print, which both has more rigorous journalistic standards and isn’t trying to fill space just to fill it, and which makes it easier to go deeper into an issue if it sparks your interest.
Practice moderation – Though news itself is not making us the stressed out creatures many of feel we’ve become, too much news can certainly aggravate the problem. So make a point of consuming a limited amount in any given day so it’s not increasing your anxiety and it’s also not a time suck. Apps like Moment can help if you aren’t sure how much time you’re spending reading news or checking in on social media on your phone. (Warning: the results can be alarming.)
Set time limits – Set parameters for both how much time you’ll spend interacting with news each day and what time of day you’ll do that. If you like to know what’s going on first thing in the morning, read the news and check in with social media then and make a point of ignoring them the rest of the day, knowing you’ll catch up the next morning. Or if you have a tendency to go down the rabbit hole as soon as you engage with news or social, save them for late in the day so they don’t derail your productivity. The Slow News Movement has some helpful tips to help you set limits for yourself.
Set aside offline days – Especially when the news is stressful, it’s important for self-care that you not immerse yourself in it every day. Take the whole weekend off from news and social media, or determine other days that work better for you, but take them. Days off screens are important for us anyway, but so is unplugging for a short period every so often.
Consume a broad range of news sources – Just as not reading news at all can shrink your world, so can only getting news from one source, because you quickly become blind to that particular outlet’s bent or even bias. Rotate your news sources or use a news aggregator to ensure you aren’t unwittingly seeing only news biased in one direction.
Don’t consume your news through Facebook or Twitter – Having said that about a broad range of sources, Facebook and Twitter should not be among them. First, your news feed on Facebook is likely to be filled with questionable “news,” but the format of both Facebook and Twitter encourages going into the black hole and wasting massive time and brain space. Install the Facebook News Feed Eradicator if you want to block the news feed but can’t give up Facebook altogether, and on Twitter, consider changing your language setting to an Asian language like Japanese or Korean so you can’t see the moments or other features that pull you in. (You can still see tweets in their original language, but the other distracting stuff becomes unintelligible to you if you don’t read those languages.)
Be a savvy consumer of news – Much of what masquerades as “news,” especially on television news, is really just celebrity gossip, or sensationalized nothing turned into scare-tactic content. (“A woman died from an infection from dog saliva!” “Some Kardashian did some something!”) That stuff isn’t news, and it doesn’t deserve your brain space. (Unless you consciously decide that the Kardashians are your source of junk food, like I do with the British Royal Family. In that case, no shame. Just don’t also then follow every movement of every Real Housewife. See “practice moderation” above.)
Purposefully seek out positive news – When we hear both positive news and negative news, we’re likely to focus on the negative, in an effect called the negativity bias. (It’s like if you get 10 great comments and one critical one, you’re more likely to focus on the critical one even though it’s the outlier.) So give that negativity bias a break and purposely seek out positive news. Some great sources are Positive News, Kindling, Yes! Magazine, Good News Network and the Good News Podcast. And, of course, you can always scroll through the We Rate Dogs Twitter feed if you need a cuteness boost.
What do you think? Where do you fall on the all-the-news vs. no news spectrum? Have you found any helpful strategies for staying plugged in without distracting you from your life goals or causing too much anxiety? Anyone want to make a case for the low-information diet in spite of what the science says? Got some more sources of good news? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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Categories: we've learned