Everything is awful... or is it?

Are we really living in the worst time ever or are we just more exposed to the bad stuff than ever before?

Are we really living in the worst time ever or are we just more exposed to the bad stuff than ever before?

Things are really bad at the moment, aren’t they? It feels like not an hour goes by without another horrible breaking news story, environmental disaster or idiotic misspeak by an elected political official. Not to mention the whole global pandemic thing that’s *still* hanging around.

Every so often, Craig and I will debate whether these times are really as bad as it feels like they are, or if it’s the distribution of information that’s the problem. If academic research is anything to go by, this is actually the best time to be alive (well, 2015-2020 was according to articles like this and this.)

It really depends on what you define as being “the best”. You could go off the thousands of people escaping poverty every day or the ever-increasing average life expectancy. Whatever your metric, it’s pretty hard to choose another time in human history with the same sociological and technological advances that we see now. But, how does that make our lives better? And is it all a little too little, too late when it comes to climate change?

Honestly, I don’t know.

But I do know that research has proven time and time again that negative news stories receive more clicks and shares than their positive counterparts. The human brain is built to recognise bad things and gather any information that could lead to self-preservation. And when it comes to life-saving psychological functions such as fight-or-flight, this brain response hasn't fared well in the digital age.

Back in the early age of man, a period often romanticised by health junkies and fans of Joe Rogan’s podcast, the amygdala did a good job of keeping us alive by sending out a chemical response to alert us to the presence of a threat. Think of a hungry tiger in the jungle.

Other than a few aesthetic and social changes, we’re really still the same fleshy sacks roaming the planet looking to live as long as possible while avoiding pain and misery. And while many people are still faced daily by the prospect of sudden death, be it caused by nature or other humans, we folks in the developed world are pretty safe.

Yet that doesn't stop the amygdala from triggering alarm bells at every bloody threat. I often think about how within the space of 30 years, we’ve gone from a weekly or daily newspaper presenting a curated selection of world events, to the first televised footage of war in the 80s and 90s, the rise of online news websites and now… a never-ending stream of consciousness. But our brains have barely changed.

Whatever happened last night is now old news.

We get blow-by-blow accounts of every murder trial, live footage of hurricanes ravaging whole towns… there are even prisoners making TikToks from behind bars. The content mill never stops.

And because it never stops, it’s harder than ever to tear our eyes away. And when you do manage to put your phone down for a bit, you’re plagued with the sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) at not being the first to hear of a celebrity death or share the latest Squid Game meme.

I noticed over the pandemic that I’ve found it increasingly difficult to part with my phone. I started bringing it back to the bedroom after a year or so of leaving it downstairs. I was doom scrolling Twitter on the browser, having deleted the app in an attempt to break the addictive habit. Monday’s Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp outage showed that I’m clearly not the only one who is plugged into The Matrix, as many turned to Twitter to express their frustrations at the other platforms’ failures.

Echo, echo, echo

The other aspect of this issue that I will probably discuss another time is the echo chambers we all create for ourselves. Even by subscribing to (or clicking on) this newsletter, you’ve decided you are interested in my left-leaning, often-rambling point-of-view. While many people keep their enemies close, I still think it’s unlikely many people are following those on the other side of the political spectrum on Twitter or actively consuming podcasts hosted by people they disagree with.

I learned about social media echo chambers the hard way following 2016’s Brexit vote, and again in the recent General Elections whereby I couldn’t believe so many people would vote for a party that I don’t know a single supporter of in real life.

So, bringing this back to my opening gambit. While there are many truly horrific things happening every single day, I don’t think we do live in a dystopian nightmare. It’s our relationship with the messenger that needs to change. I’m certainly not the first to contemplate this, particularly as #DeleteFacebook was trending on Monday evening while the platforms were down.

Is it time to switch off more often? Stop refreshing the feed? I don’t think it’s as severe as that, but I do believe 2020 and 2021 have brought with them a torrent of news like no other, and it’s not stopping whether we like it or not… so it’s our responsibility as individuals to determine what we want to see, and what we can tolerate on any given day.

Have you noticed social media affects your mood? Are you making conscious choices to limit your exposure to certain topics? Ironically, you can let me know on Twitter @ContentByTheSea or reply to this email for a confidential chat.

📺 Squid Game (Netflix) - Like the rest of the world, we watched Netflix’s latest Korean sensation and I am now neck-deep in theories.

🎥 CODA (Apple TV) - I adored this film about Ruby, who is a CODA (child of deaf adults) and the only hearing person in her family. Ruby discovers a passion for singing and is faced with some difficult decisions that won’t just affect her future, but the entire livelihood of her family. I can’t recommend this enough - it had me crying my eyes out, and I don’t tear up at the telly very often (not even Episode 6 of Squid Game could squeeze tears from my cold, dead heart).

📚 Skyward by Brandon Sanderson - My favourite author has ventured into YA sci-fi and this is a pretty good first instalment in what is set to be a very interesting trilogy. If you liked Enders Game and the Red Rising series, you’ll love this.

🏃‍♀️ I ran my first ever sub-30 min 5K on Monday - a goal I’ve been chasing since I hit 30:44 back in Jan of this year. I am over the moon! Fellow runners can follow me on Strava (I’m always in the market for new online running pals).

That’s all from me this week, see you next week for more about mental health and work culture in the online world.

Ellen x

Enjoyed this? You might like these past issues:

29 September: That’s dope

22 September: Have a word with yourself

15 September: Running changed my life

8 September: Okay, boomer

25 August: Bridezilla returns

18 August: Find your zen

10 August: The fear factor

3 August: You shall not pass

28 July: Recharging your mental battery

21 July: How much is too much to share

14 July: We’ve got to talk about Twitter

7 July: Meet my poison parrot