A 2009 study found that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information every day, certainly more than our ancestors ever handled—the iPhone had barely been out for 1 year, who knows how much information we take in today. We swim in an increasingly turbulent sea of information and stories: the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, the ones we hear on the news, and the ones we choose to watch on Netflix—and read in books, listen to on podcasts, and follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Research suggests these stories have powerful impacts on our well-being.
1. Understand What Information Helps You
Some forms of narrative are deeply nourishing. A study at the New School for Social Research found that reading literary fiction especially (as opposed to best-selling thrillers or romances) helps people develop skills they need in social relationships, like the ability to see from another person’s perspective. In particular, participants who read literary fiction were better able to read emotions in other people’s eyes—a critical skill for determining the state of mind of another person.
The researchers believe that the key ingredient in literary fiction is that it improves your creative and intellectual skills as you come to understand the characters in a novel. The ability to understand that another person has his or her own thoughts and feelings is something psychologists call Theory of Mind. Developmental psychologists believe Theory of Mind begins in toddlers and small children and continues to develop with time. Reading brings new perspectives and the ability to see the world through someone else’s experience.
Moreover, inspiring or moving news pieces or articles can uplift us and even teach us new ways of thinking or acting. They are the ones we share with others, tell our friends about and keep thinking about for days. They help us reflect about issues and life in deeper and more meaningful ways. And we have a profound need for meaning – which makes us deeply fulfilled, as Emily Esfahani Smith shows in her book The Power of Meaning. One way to help uplift others is to post uplifting news ourselves.
2. Cut out Information that is Destructive
Other forms of narrative, on the other hand, can be exhausting and even destructive: the constant influx of negative, sad, or traumatic news coming our way, violent films, and pornography, as well as the constant barrage of advertising and irrelevant information. Just as “we are what we eat” the same is true for the types of information we absorb. What do you want to be thinking about at the end of the day, what kinds of thoughts do you want floating around in your head?
3. Practice Volume Control
Even when the narratives that surround us are nourishing, they can still be overwhelming. As a friend shared with me, “I think I am suffering from narrative overload. So many projects, stories—whatever—that even if all of them are ‘good’ I still feel frazzled.” We all need firm boundaries around the types and numbers of narrative we pursue and accept.
4. Build Resilience
Given the sheer amount of information we ingest every day, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed? Of course, it is wonderful to be so in touch with the world, and this is a time of tremendous freedom of speech and information exchange, but it is more important than ever to be able to disconnect to retain our sanity. Here are some science-based tips that help:
• Verbalizing our experiences and feelings by talking them out or writing them down have also been shown to be deeply therapeutic.
• Breathing practices I’ve described in my book The Happiness Track(link is external) can calm our nervous system in moments, our research with highly stressed individuals (veterans with trauma) has shown. In so doing, we regain the resilience we need.
Instead of being overwhelmed and distracted, we get back in touch with ourselves. We regain awareness of our values, and are reminded of what is actually important to us. Fundamentally, to stay true to ourselves, we need to stay in touch with our own core narrative.
5. Understand the Impact of Self-Focus
The form our narrative takes is also critical. Depressed or anxious feelings, for example, are often accompanied by self-focus—narratives revolving around “me, myself, and I” as the central character. Yet news pieces are often designed to provoke some sort of anxiety – why? Because it gets our attention. When you read news pieces that make you feel you’re not good enough (women’s magazines and men’s magazines focused diets and looks are particularly good at that), these articles can leave you feeling insecure. As a consequence, we feel more disconnected and lonely. We are less able to connect with others and more likely to brood over negative thoughts.
However, exercises as simple as focusing on the things we feel grateful for, remembering how much in our life is going right, doing a loving-kindness meditation focused on sending love to others, taking a yoga or exercise class, or engaging in acts of service can quickly shift the discourse of our narrative to one that is more positive and uplifted.
5. Don’t Avoid
Suffering, pain, and illness are narratives we don’t prefer, yet are inevitable, and they too have a powerful and sometimes beneficial influence. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says: “Hardship makes you deeper.” One way it makes you deeper is that you begin to understand that pain is part of the human narrative. And that is a powerful realization.
Happiness is something everyone wants; pain is something nobody does. By fundamentally realizing this point, you begin to participate in a narrative where you actively choose not to hurt others. You become more conscious: of the food you eat, of the words you speak, of the actions you take. Others’ pain becomes your pain.
As a fellow mother told me the other day: “Every time I give my baby cow’s milk to drink, my heart hurts for the cow who was forcibly taken from her calf in order to produce milk for us.” The Jain and Yogic concept of ahimsa or non-violence comes from a deep understanding that others’ pain is also our pain. You therefore weave a new narrative: a narrative in which you walk lightly and delicately, in which you speak consciously and compassionately, in which you act mindfully and with love.
Read more on the science of happiness in my book The Happiness Track(link is external). Follow me on Twitter @emmaseppala
Copyright Emma Seppala Ph.D. 2018 (c)
This article first appeared on Spirituality & Health