The Doomscroll: Is Happiness Possible Today?

How to refuse unneccessary emotional turmoil given today's zeitgeist.

Posted Aug 23, 2020

Nando Pelusi/Personal archive
Source: Nando Pelusi/Personal archive

Doomscrolling is looking at a screen and following bad news threads all the way down -- until gloom embraces you. It’s akin to rubbernecking an accident on the highway. Bad news jumps into your consciousness along with popular fads and cant. Your sense of control can get untethered to actual events, leading to emotional bleakness. 

Answering the following questions won’t solve the immediate practical problems, but a start to get one oriented to addressing real problems while simultaneously avoiding unnecessary emotional and behavioral turmoil.

The Interrogative Mood

How not to get demoralized when the news seems to be chronically frustrating? Ask yourself: 

Do I need to respond to this seeming outrage? 

Am I or my family in direct personal danger? If not, I can respond but need not embrace rage. 

How can I enjoy my life in spite of social-media-created outrage?  

If others are outraged why must I follow in their footsteps? 

Can I find passion in life that does not require denigrating those with whom I disagree?  

Normally, our goals are positive and involve a certain amount of idealization about the future. But here’s what happens when contextless images are the route to info: That idealization, easily elicited by a sense of unconstrained possibilities, crumbles with forbidding updates and blurry images of social discord. Such images urge you to take sides. Sure, it creates excitement and involvement, but it also comes with chronic frustration and anxious urgency. That can lead to general demoralization. 

The turmoil over recent events comes from a series of propellants: Resentment about past injustices, along with passion to do good, plus, and here’s the quirk, a demand for the ideal: Idealizing how perfect things could and should be. 

The Romantic philosopher who embodied the idealization of a perfect state of nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote calls to embrace our natural impulses -- and I suspect that he encoded much of the implicit underpinnings of the woke response against attempts to reason. 

What an observer can control is one’s own reaction -- cut out the catastrophic despair by understanding that slogans are not borne of arguments. They follow an insight that I adopt from Neal Stephenson’s book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, that bad faith arguments have these premises in common:

Speech is aggression

Every utterance has a winner and a loser

Curiosity is feigned

Lying is performative 

Stupidity is power

Twitter is not a public square but an environment of performative action and voyeurism. It has emboldened a market of lurid scuffles without requiring physical presence. However, when people get physically hurt that changes things. Both MSNBC and Fox News sell outrage culture; maybe towards only a culture scuffle, but the apocalyptic narrative of anger gives credence to the outrage. 

Personal grudge collecting can be indistinguishable from perceived injustice. The momentum springing forth from a rave, a protest, a concerted event, is exhilarating and enlivening, an intense passionate affair. To conflate an individual with a label is a degradation of reason -- and maybe that’s the point, but we needn’t give it credence.

Wendell Johnson, author of People in Quandaries, writing in 1946, came to an understanding of the causes of emotional demoralization not unlike what we encounter daily in media images, now amplified via the panopticon smartphone. He discovered a prototype of what became Cognitive Behavioral Therapy many decades before others. 

Labeling in 2020: Wendell Johnson theorized a trick of the mind which is to label things that are quite idealized, and not very concretized or measurable, as one of the culprits leading to frustration and then ultimately demoralization. He claimed that humans take some kind of event and then fashion it as a goal at a removed level of abstraction. That distance can frustrate our attainment of goals since we cannot measure whether we’re getting closer. 

Of course Johnson didn’t call his insights “cognitive-behavioral” since he lived in a world of strict adherence to behaviorism and fuzzy Freudianism, but he influenced the study of thinking, and meaning-making: that is, how one imbues events with meaning through language. An intellectual movement called general semantics came into being. It is an examination of how we talk to ourselves about what we see. That, and how we can get tripped up by unexamined ways of thinking and speaking when we talk to ourselves and others about the world. 

Johnson’s concern about demoralization lay in the thinking patterns he detected. When someone dreams or idealizes a goal, he noted, often in hazy, mottled concepts, and without a measurable means of detecting progress, one can’t help but get frustrated, and, he claimed, ultimately demoralized. 

A robust sensitivity about knowing when to defend and when to dismiss is a mental app we can develop via the Socratic method. 
 

References

Johnson, Wendell (1946) People in Quandaries. Harper & Row: New York.

Stephenson, Neal (2019) Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. William Morrow, New York.