Many Americans believe that the following statements are self-evidently true: information is beneficial, knowledge is power, and awareness of societal evils is indicative of a responsible citizen. Nevertheless, what if they are incorrect? Recent research on the relationship between political understanding and individual happiness has hinted at a freeing if grim, alternative. Occasionally, or even most of the time, it is preferable not to know.
Like taking a narcotic, knowing about politics and following the news may be addicting, yet People are urged to do more of it lest they become misinformed. Unless you have a profession that needs you to be informed, it is unclear what the news—good or bad—actually does for you, other than making you aware of matters over which you have little to no influence. The majority of the things we may know are a diversion from the things we already know to be most important: family, faith, friendship, and community. Since our time on Earth is limited – we have, on average, just approximately 4,000 weeks — we should use it wisely.
What the author Sarah Haider refers to as “knowledge addiction” is an epidemic. Politics is literally making Americans ill. Yet the only way to catch the disease is by actively seeking out and ingesting vast quantities of news. And it is a decision. In late 2021 and early 2022, Haider decided to abstain from news coverage for six months. She reported feeling “healthier, happier, and (surprise) better knowledgeable” after avoiding news that were speculative, exaggerated, or irrelevant. But does it make sense for millions of other Americans to reassess their relationship to political information and knowledge? Kevin Smith, a political scientist, projected in a 2022 research that between fifty and eighty-five million Americans suffer from politically-induced weariness, sleeplessness, short temper, and impulse control issues. In addition, forty percent of his sample of American adults indicated that politics was a “major cause of stress” in their life, and five percent, or almost twelve million people, had suicide thoughts as a result of politics.
And the issue is particularly severe for young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that depression and suicidal ideation are at an all-time high, with one in three adolescent females seriously considering suicide. Guys are also not doing especially well. Smartphones are prevalent in all developed democracies, notwithstanding the contention of some observers that they are to blame. Mental and physical symptoms generated by politics appear to be more prevalent among politically active and left-leaning young adults, according to a separate study. Young conservatives have substantially lower levels of unhappiness, while presumably also possessing mobile phones.
In the United States, being young, politically active, and liberal has become synonymous with worry, discontent, and even depression. If you are a progressive, it is natural that you would want your children to be progressive. That may be beneficial to the world, but it may be detrimental to their health. Since around 2010, the co-authors of a study on the politics of depression argue that left-leaning adolescents may have “experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate, such that their mental health deteriorated relative to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were thriving.”
According to this school of reasoning, liberals have excellent reason to feel melancholy due to their liberalism. Ultimately, life, America, and the globe are all terrible. Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post recently stated on Twitter, “We live in a late-stage capitalism hellscape.” Nevertheless, this is false, at least for the hellscape portion. Notwithstanding assertions to the contrary, neither a civil war nor a dictatorship exists in the United States. It is a democracy and one of the richest nations in history. As measured by public social expenditure as a proportion of GDP, the American safety net has been more generous, not less, although being far from ideal. The unemployment rate has not been this low since the 1950s. According to a detailed review, child poverty has decreased by 59 percent over the previous three decades.
The 2010s and 1920s have experienced one of the most stunning progressive revolutions in American history regarding cultural issues. Conservative viewpoints are not dominant. In large metropolitan areas and mainstream institutions, the cultural left has built a domination that decades ago was inconceivable. In the medical field, the U.S. government bureaucracy, and colleges, new standards on social justice—or, more pejoratively, “wokeness”—are now the norm. What my colleague Helen Lewis refers to as “awake capitalism” has expanded to firms that were previously apathetic to social and/or economic justice. The fast acceptance of homosexual marriage has been astonishing. Progression occurs gradually, then abruptly. In an influential article published in 2021, Richard Hanania argued exhaustively why “almost every significant American institution that is not expressly Republican leans left.”
Why aren’t young conservatives sad if this is true? Hanania hypothesizes that the reason is that they care less about politics. But, demography may have a role as well. On college campuses and in big metropolitan areas, conservatives are typically in the minority. So, they have little choice but to adapt to a liberal atmosphere and learn to deal with individuals who are unlike them. A 2021 Generation Lab/Axios study of college students indicated that just 5% of Republicans would refuse to work for “someone who voted for the opposition presidential candidate,” in contrast to 30% of Democrats. In contrast, just 31% of Republicans would not date someone who voted for the opposing candidate, compared to 71% of Democrats.
Progressives can take solace and pride in the fact that they have won the majority of the great cultural battles of the 21st century so far, despite the fact that progressive cultural norms are facing increasing opposition not only from conservatives but also from communities of color that lean left. Young progressives, who are more likely to avidly monitor the news and care about it, have formed a tendency of catastrophic thinking despite their numerous wins and victories. The ancient media adage “If it bleeds, it leads” has been recast for the era of equality and inclusion: the belief is that injustices are structural and beyond the control of individuals. White supremacy is pervasive, permeating not just our institutions but also our language.
For those who view the world in this way, depression is a sign of virtue. In the research on the politics of depression, for instance, the co-authors write that “liberalism typically indicates a somewhat stronger awareness of social imbalances that may be detrimental to mental health, particularly among less privileged groups that are the targets of social neglect.” In the meanwhile, the authors of a piece published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2023 lament the implications of their own results that everyday political event awareness adds to “poor psychological and physical well-being.” “While it is normal to desire to feel better in response to stress, feeling better can have both advantages and drawbacks,” they add. People may sense a “reduced incentive to take political action” and “divert their focus away from the injustice, so decreasing their chances of taking to the streets” as a result of feeling better.
Such arguments are ethically problematic, at best. Even if catastrophic thinking and negative bias result in more equitable societal results, they should not be promoted. How just can results be, after all, if they come at the expense of the mental health of tens of millions of Americans who have been conditioned to anticipate the worst? Recently, Matthew Yglesias claimed that depression is the mental processing of ambiguous situations with a negative spin. “Our educational institutions have progressively created an environment in which students are objectively motivated to foster their own fragility as a power move,” he continues.
Regardless matter how tough it may be, People must find methods to withdraw from the continual political bombardment. In a world where everything is “difficult” even if it isn’t, the rhythm of daily political events too readily inspires anxiety, rage, and despondency. In fact, dwelling on alleged calamities, particularly those in the far future, can have much more substantial impacts that are both strange and abnormal. Ezra Klein of The New York Times remarked this year that the question he is most frequently asked at public appearances is, “Should I have children, given the climate problem they will face?” This is the platonic ideal of catastrophic thought. Among other things, Klein’s interlocutors undoubtedly read too much news.
If there were a method to ingest the news without catastrophizing it, it would be a step in the right direction. But, progressives have special difficulty doing so. Aware of the world’s evils, they feel forced to speak and act, or at the very least, to feel. Even if we cannot all live without news, which is difficult in the world as it is, we may at least create a truce with it. Oftentimes, information and expertise may be highly valuable. Nonetheless, these are not unqualified products. Occasionally, ignorance is in reality bliss.