The Downfall of Civilization: Hyperbole and Anxiety

The Downfall of Civilization:  Hyperbole and Anxiety

I often joke that the twenty-four hour news cycle may end up being the downfall of our civilization. That hyperbole is as extreme as the networks themselves, but here’s what I mean. How can anyone keep an audience’s attention by talking about facts for twenty-four hours? Facts don’t take that long to deliver and they don’t get people to stick around through commercial breaks. Gone are the days when Walter Cronkite or Louis Rukeyser would tell you in thirty minutes what happened that day and people would then go back to living their life.

So what keeps people’s attention? Emotions do. See, facts are always neutral. In and of themselves, facts are not emotional. When we assign meaning to facts, we get opinions, and opinions make us feel something, often anger and fear. That is why almost every news outlet runs its facts through what I call the superlative machine. They put in the fact that, say, the Dow fell fifty-three points today. The machine finds a reference point in order to be able to add “best” or “worst,” and the more emotional headline pops out: “Dows Suffers Worst Dip Since Last Thursday.” Do you see the trick?  In order to get our attention, they have to make the mundane sensational. Why on earth would we care that the Dow was down or up fifty-three points?  But if it is the “best” or “worst” day since last Thursday, our emotions get stirred, and our brain draws our attention to those key superlatives.  These words engage our fear or greed and we forget the comically irrelevant reference point. This is how the media makes everything mean something to us.

The Cost of Attention

So, why does this matter?  Because it costs us so much.

We have a very limited capacity to truly experience emotion. Instead of filling that space with the real relationships in our lives, we tend to waste it on stories that don’t matter, from people we don’t have a connection to. Even worse, that wasted space that is filled with fear and greed many times motivates us to make decisions that end up making things worse. We react to fear, and sell out of everything when the market is near the bottom, or we allow greed to move us to finally jump in so we aren’t left out, and we buy things right as they reach the top. It is what keeps us spinning our wheels and making little or no progress.

For a long stretch of my career, I connected money to peace in exactly the wrong way. I noticed that when the market would have a panic attack over the latest fear-filled news story, I would always hear from the same clients. They tended to be my clients that had less money in their accounts. I would never hear from my largest clients. They didn’t call me to talk about their worry.  Well, they don’t worry because they’re wealthy, I would think.  

I was wrong—I had it backwards.

It turns out that people succeed because they stay relaxed when voices of anxiety surround them. The truth is that many of those larger clients are wealthy because they don’t worry.  They didn’t get in the way of their own progress over the years. They didn’t allow their emotions to drive their decisions, and as a result, their wheels didn’t bog down in the mud.

Hearing Better Voices

Let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that we should live oblivious to the world at large. Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge and truth matter. Here’s my challenge: Let’s develop a keen sense of the differences between news and sensationalism, between facts and feeling-manipulating opinions. Here’s how we can do just that:

First, we can recognize what the media is trying to do.

As we grow in awareness of what the superlative machine does to mundane facts, it loses its effect. These bold and loud exaggerations become laughable when put in perspective. Ultimately, we may decide to find other media outlets that take up less of our emotional capacity. That might mean less energetic and entertaining anchors, but that’s okay. We can then fill our capacity with the events and relationships of our real lives.

Second, we can decide for ourselves what thingsreally mean.

If I’m feeling worried, I ask where these thoughts originated. If my thoughts are based on other people’s opinions, I ask whether the meaning I am assigning to the facts serves me or my family in any way. Does it bring hope? Does it help us make better decisions? Does it make us better people? Often, the only thing that a story on the news means is that we’re going to hear about it constantly for the next week. Other than that, these facts have little or no consequence to our lives. We get to choose how we feel about the world. We don’t need the experts to do that for us.

Third, we can resolve to give our emotions space.

In its proper place, fear protects us. But the age of anxiety leaves us all running at high alert.  Our brain is hardwired to keep us safe, and it will lead us to really bad decisions when it perceives a threat. The problem is that most of the so-called threats aren’t actually dangerous to us. The key is to not make irrational choices in the midst  of the panic. Give yourself the space to process the emotion. Once you come down from that high alert state, you will be able to make a more clear-headed decision if there really is something you need to do.

James Lenhoff is the president of Wealthquest – a Cincinnati based financial planning and wealth management firm that offers a full range of financial services under one roof, for one simple fee.

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