You’re Better Off Not Knowing

The problem with dwelling on news about things you can’t control

Gif showing fictional news show "Needless Worry Live" turning off
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic

For many Americans, these claims sound self-evidently true: Information is good; knowledge is power; awareness of social ills is the mark of the responsible citizen. But what if they aren’t correct? Recent studies on the link between political awareness and individual well-being have gestured toward a liberating, if dark, alternative. Sometimes—perhaps even most of the time—it is better not to know.

Like taking a drug, learning about politics and following the news can become addictive, yet Americans are encouraged to do more of it, lest we become uninformed. Unless you have a job that requires you to know things, however, it’s unclear what the news—good or bad—actually does for you, beyond making you aware of things you have no real control over. Most of the things we could know are a distraction from the most important things that we already know: family, faith, friendship, and community. If our time on Earth is finite—on average, we have only about 4,000 weeks—we should choose wisely what to do with it.

What the writer Sarah Haider calls “information addiction” is nothing short of an epidemic. In a quite literal sense, politics is making Americans sick. But the sole way to contract the illness is by seeking out the news and consuming large amounts of it. And that’s a choice. Haider chose differently, deciding to go news free for six months in late 2021 and early 2022. Having missed out on stories that were speculative, overhyped, or irrelevant, she reported being “saner, happier, and (surprisingly) more informed.” But does it make sense for other Americans, perhaps millions of them, to completely rethink their relationship to political information and knowledge? In a 2022 study, the political scientist Kevin Smith estimated that between 50 million and 85 million Americans suffer from politically induced fatigue, insomnia, loss of temper, and impulse-control problems. Moreover, 40 percent of his sample of American adults reported that politics was a “significant source of stress” in their lives, while 5 percent—which would translate to roughly 12 million people—reported suicidal thoughts due to politics.

And the problem is especially bad for young people. Last month, the CDC reported that depression and suicidal ideation are at their highest levels on record, with one in three teenage girls having seriously considered suicide. Boys aren’t faring particularly well either. Some observers insist that smartphones are the culprit, but smartphones are ubiquitous in all advanced democracies. In another study, politically induced mental and physical symptoms appear to be more pronounced among not just the young, but specifically those who are politically engaged and left-leaning. Young conservatives, despite presumably also owning phones, experience significantly lower levels of dissatisfaction.

In the United States, the combination of being young, engaged, and liberal has become associated with anxiety, unhappiness, and even despair. If you’re a progressive, wanting your kids to be progressive is obviously understandable. It might be good for the world, but it might not be good for their health. The co-authors of a study on the politics of depression argue that since around 2010, left-leaning adolescents may have “experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.”

According to this line of thinking, liberals, because of their liberalism, have good reason to be depressed. After all, life is bad, America is bad, and the world is bad. As The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz recently put it on Twitter, “We’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape.” But this is not true, at least not the hellscape part. Despite claims to the contrary, the United States is not experiencing civil war, nor is it under a dictatorship. It is a democracy, and one of the wealthiest that has ever existed. Although far from ideal, the American safety net has grown more rather than less generous, as measured by public social spending as a percentage of GDP. Unemployment is at its lowest rate since the 1950s. Child poverty, according to one comprehensive analysis, has declined by 59 percent in the past three decades.

Meanwhile, on cultural questions, the 2010s and ’20s have witnessed one of the most striking progressive shifts in American history. Conservative views are not hegemonic. In major cities and mainstream institutions, the cultural left has established a dominance that would have been unimaginable decades ago. New norms around social justice—or, more pejoratively, “wokeness”—now prevail in the medical profession, in the U.S. government bureaucracy, and in universities. What my colleague Helen Lewis calls “woke capitalism” has spread through corporations that might have otherwise been indifferent to justice, social or otherwise. The rapid acceptance of gay marriage has been nothing short of remarkable. Progress comes gradually and then suddenly. In an influential 2021 essay, the writer Richard Hanania laid out an exhaustive case for why “almost every major institution in America that is not explicitly conservative leans left.”

If this is true, why aren’t young conservatives more depressed? Hanania suggests that it’s because they care less about politics. But it’s also likely a question of demographics. On college campuses and in major cities, conservatives tend to be a minority. So they have little choice but to acclimate themselves to a liberal environment and learn to interact with those who are different from them. A 2021 Generation Lab/Axios survey of college students found that only 5 percent of Republicans would not work for “someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate,” compared with 30 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile, 71 percent of Democrats say they would not date someone who voted for the other candidate, compared with only 31 percent of Republicans.

While progressive cultural norms face growing pushback, not just from conservatives but from otherwise left-leaning communities of color, progressives can take solace and pride in having won most of the great cultural battles of the 21st century so far. Despite these myriad successes and victories, however, young progressives—who are more likely to closely follow the news and care about it—have developed a habit of thinking catastrophically. The old media adage “If it bleeds, it leads” has now been repurposed for the era of equity and inclusion: Injustices are systemic, the thinking goes, and beyond the agency or control of mere individuals. White supremacy is embedded everywhere, not just in our institutions but in our language.

For people who view the world in these terms, being depressed is evidence of virtue. In the study on the politics of depression, for example, the co-authors note that “liberalism frequently signals a relatively greater awareness of social disparities that may be damaging to mental wellbeing, especially among less privileged groups who are the targets of societal neglect.” Meanwhile, the authors of a 2023 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology lament the implications of their own findings that knowledge of daily political events contributes to “worse psychological and physical well-being.” They offer the cautionary note that “although it is natural to want to feel better in the face of stress, feeling better can come with both benefits and costs.” Apparently, the cost of feeling better is that people may experience “less motivation to take political action” and may “divert their attention away from the injustice, thereby minimizing their likelihood of taking to the street.”

Such arguments are morally questionable, at best. Catastrophic thinking and negativity bias should not be encouraged, even if they lead to more just social outcomes. After all, how just can outcomes be if they come at the cost of the mental health of tens of millions of Americans who have been taught to expect the worst? As the writer Matthew Yglesias recently argued, “Mentally processing ambiguous events with a negative spin is just what depression is.” He adds that “our educational institutions have increasingly created an environment where students are objectively incentivized to cultivate their own fragility as a power move.”

However difficult it may be, Americans need to find ways to disengage from the constant assault of politics. In a culture where everything is “problematic” even if it’s not, the drumbeat of everyday political events too easily arouses worry, anger, and hopelessness. Indeed, focusing on supposed catastrophes, including those far out into the future, can have even more profound effects that are at once odd and unnatural. Remarkably, The New York Times’ Ezra Klein observed last year that the question he’s been asked more than any other in his public engagements is: “Should I have kids, given the climate crisis they will face?” This is the platonic ideal of catastrophic thinking. Klein’s interlocutors, among other things, are probably reading too much news.

If there were a way to consume the news without catastrophizing it, then that could be one path forward. But progressives in particular have trouble doing so. For them, to be aware of the ills of the world is to feel compelled to speak and act—or at least to feel. If we can’t all go news free—which is difficult in the world as it is—we can, at the very least, establish a truce with the news. Information and knowledge can be—and often are—quite great. But they are not unqualified goods. Sometimes ignorance is, in fact, bliss.