How to Relieve Your Election Night Anxiety
So it’s about to be over. Congratulations to all of us for surviving a truly terrible presidential campaign. 1 Some of the terribleness was on the stump, but a lot it was generated by the all-politics-all-the-time news media and social networks. If, like many of us, you’re worn out by the whole thing, I would propose an innovative response: Don’t watch the election returns come in. Spend tonight doing something more useful.
Following politics has taken on all of the characteristics that the philosophers have typically derided in work: It’s exhausting, it’s repetitious, it’s degrading, it’s not satisfying. We might add that politics involves a cycle of enervating swings between giddy highs and depressing lows -- like working for an unpredictable and uncontrollable boss.
So what to do instead of attending that election-night party? Well, for one thing, we can spend time catching up on the news. You know, the actual things that happened to real people while political journalists blanketed the airwaves with stories of e-mails and gaffes, and endless if useless predictions. Believe it or not, there’s plenty of good news. In the U.S., according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, the quality of the air continues its dramatic improvement. Pick any pollutant you want -- from carbon monoxide to sulfur dioxide -- and the EPA will tell you that the air is cleaner than ever. But as my friend Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, we don’t seem receptive to good news. We always think things are getting worse.
Prefer bad news? One wouldn’t know it from cable news, but there are wars going on in the world in places other than Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, tens of thousands of people worldwide died in wars in 2015. Here’s an interactive map that does the difficult but urgent work of tracking the numbers. (Apart from occasional mentions of Boko Haram, the U.S. news media do a particularly poor job of covering wars in sub-Saharan Africa.)
But maybe you want to turn off your computer as well as your television. Good idea. And you could do worse than donate the unused processing time to a worthy cause. When it’s not busy, the chip inside your laptop or smartphone can help scientists build 3-D models of human proteins to better understand and battle diseases, measure seismic activity to give swifter earthquake warnings, or solve mathematical problems that have baffled geniuses for decades or longer. Through Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, known familiarly as Boinc, you can browse the opportunities and download the necessary software. And because the programs only run when you’re not using your device, the less time you spend online, the more you’re helping build the future.
There’s always the old standby: Read a good book. Even if we just stick to recent nonfiction, there are some wonderful titles that have not gained the attention they should. For those wishing for a better understanding of how modern Europe evolved, I would recommend Murat Iyigun’s short but elegantly argued “War, Peace, and Prosperity in the Name of God.” If our fractured and debilitating political discourse is on your mind, I’d urge a peek at the delightful historical journey offered by the historian Mark Lilla in “The Shipwrecked Mind.” Another excellent take, from a very different perspective, is by the legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny, who in her monumental book “Prophecy Without Contempt” sorts out the blame on both sides in our fierce battles over religion and public discourse, and proposes a middle way. Or if you want to be completely transported to a different era, you could hardly do better than Frank McLynn’s remarkable biography of Genghis Khan. Any one of these books will fully occupy your thoughts once you pick it up, and will easily hold your attention well into the night.
Or perhaps in these fractured times we might all work on our empathy. How do we do it? According to the cognitive scientists, by reading literary fiction. Evidently, the more serious novels we read, the more we are able to intuit other people’s feelings and thoughts -- a vital cognitive tool in an era when we tend to assign unseemly motivations to those with whom we disagree. (Reading genre fiction does not produce the same effect.)
The multiplexes are likely to be half empty this evening, so you can easily take yourself off to a good movie. To my surprise, I find myself recommending “Dr. Strange” -- yes, that’s right, a Marvel superhero movie -- but hear me out. It’s a visual spectacle, weirdly delightful, in a way that such films rarely are. True, there’s the usual cliché of a world-threatening baddie, and the training scenes go on a smidgen too long, but overall it’s diverting kooky escapist fun, even if you don’t care for superhero movies.
Or stay home and binge-watch “The Crown,” the sumptuous and contrarian Netflix take on the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It’s excellent. (How contrarian is it? Let’s just say that Prince Philip is mostly a good guy, and Winston Churchill is mostly a doddering tyrant.)
Or you might do none of these things and spend time alone with your thoughts. That may not be for most of us a first choice, but it’s important to do now and then. The philosopher Bertrand Russell praised true solitude as the only way to do any actual thinking of our own. If we’re with other people -- or even reading other people’s words -- we’re not thinking, he argued, but reacting. We don’t know what’s really in our minds until we let our minds wander.
Perhaps in this way we can recover our sense of “thought becoming lost in itself,” as the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper put it. For Pieper, the only answer to a world drenched in work without borders and technology without limits was to regain our sense of wonder. The great liberal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in his last book, said much the same.
Or play a video game for hours. Watch your favorite reality show. Cook a magnificent dinner for those you love. Do something that takes you away from our burdensome fascination with politics. Avoid the election returns and read about them after a good night’s sleep. Let someone else do all that backbreaking labor. Wake refreshed and full of energy, ready to deal with whatever future beckons.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
No, this hasn’t been the most depressing presidential campaign in memory. For those my age, that would be 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy (who was a candidate, remember) were assassinated.
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Stephen L. Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Stacey Shick at email@example.com