Control Your Input

You learned earlier that you are especially vulnerable to a lamprey invasion when watching the news or talking with people (read about that here). These are input channels, and negativity can flow in on them. A natural response is to wonder what can be done about it. Certainly, we must protect our vulnerable places. But how? Avoid watching any news? Don't talk to anybody? Sit in a room by ourselves? Of course not. But we have many opportunities to exert some control over these input channels. Let's look at some of the more important ways.

The first thing we can do is to avoid all-or-nothing thinking. We don't have to choose between watching the news or not watching the news at all. Although the media is a source of negativity, it is also a source of information. The media may have a tendency to encourage pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism, but it ain't all bad. When you call a country a "free country" one of the main things that makes it free is a free press. In places where the government controls the media, such as in South Africa up until the late 1980's, the government can get away with atrocious crimes because nobody finds out about them. In places without reporters snooping around digging up the most negative things, corruption is rampant and terrible things happen more often.

The international media helped the freedom fighters in South Africa quite a bit. They dug up the facts and published them around the world. Governments then imposed political and economic pressure on the South African government and opened the way to change. Information in the news can be helpful.

But you need to filter your news. You need to be active about it, choosing and directing and guiding rather than passively inflowing. When you get a piece of news, ask yourself, "Is there anything I can do about this?" If not, think twice about how much exposure to it is helpful. And choose your battles; you can't fight them all.

Keep trying to upgrade the quality of your news sources. Some sources concentrate on worthless negativity you can do nothing about and some have a more productive approach.

The more the media is in your control, the better. And the more accurate, the better. Television is the worst way to get news because a) it is visual so unnaturally compelling, b) it is chosen and fed to you by someone else, and c) it is riddled with commercials. You can't skip a story when you're watching it on television. In a newspaper, you can glance at a headline and move on, reading only what you want to read, giving you more control over your news. But what is news today might be nothing a week from now, so newspapers are better than television, but not as good as a weekly newsmagazine. Why? Because newspapers have a daily deadline, making it more difficult for them to check their facts, and less likely to have enough time to decide what is really important and what is only surprising. You can't know it all, so be as choosy as you can.

And while reading the information, cultivate a healthy skepticism. Protect yourself from incorrect information with skepticism. This is not the same as cynicism. The opposite of cynicism is not gullibility. You don't need illusions to have a positive attitude. You don't need to fool yourself about the world. But you do need to be skeptical because some information you will get is bunk. Even information being passed off as scientific data is sometimes bunk. We can't throw out science, however. That would be more all-or-nothing thinking. The scientific method is the best way to discover what is true and what isn't. Science is not perfect, of course. Scientists are human. They make mistakes. They sometimes bias their results. Often their results are relayed badly by the media. But all in all, our knowledge about the world keeps improving because of the scientific method.

We would all do well to have a more scientific attitude, especially when reading information in the news. You might not know this, but you can gain information without "believing" it, and without dismissing it either. You can hold it as possibly true. If you read a report of a scientific study that says drinking tea is good for your health, you can hold that as possibly true. You can look into it further. If you find ten studies, all by different scientists, all using different methods, funded by different sources, and they all say tea is good for you, you can now hold it as quite possibly true, and you can begin to drink tea.

And you can drink tea without being a believer. You can have a level of confidence in the idea that tea is good for you while still leaving your mind open to new information. Your own knowledge can advance just as the general body of scientific knowledge advances: By holding tentative theories and testing them. When the results of an experiment confirm a theory, it doesn't usually prove the theory. It only gives us more confidence in the theory. You can have more or less confidence without producing certainty that something is definitely true or definitely false. This is not difficult. Most people are more accustomed to making up their minds definitely, but that is an outdated way of thinking.

Your mind naturally wants to decide and be done with it, but it doesn't take much effort to remind yourself that's just what a human brain does automatically. That's the default setting. But you don't have to go along with it. Be skeptical. This is one way to control your input. Find good sources of news — sources that are as reliable as you can get and as free of pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism as you can find.

sources of input

Beyond news, you have many sources of input. What you read, the movies you watch, what you listen to in your car, the people you talk with and what you allow those conversations to be about, what kind of music you listen to, and so on. All of it is input you have some control over.

You can read sordid novels or self-help books, history books or science fiction. Whatever you read will have some sort of effect on you. The question is, what effect do you want? Books and articles have the potential to really improve your life. You probably hold that as possibly true already or you wouldn't be reading this. Scientific studies indicate that you can have some confidence that it's true.

In one study, for example, researchers gave depressed people a self-help book to read. The volunteers were randomly assigned to read either Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, or Control Your Depression by Peter Lewinsohn. A month later, using self-reports and also clinician ratings, there was a "significant reduction" in depression according to the lead researcher, Forrest Scogin. A six month follow up showed a continued relief from depression.

And you don't have the choice between reading some boring self-help book or reading an enjoyable novel. Some self-help books are very enjoyable to read just as some novels are boring. Control your input. Make it serve you.

The same holds true for what you listen to in your car. Most of us spend several hours a week in our car with nothing to do but drive. What an opportunity for growth! There are an enormous number of audio programs available. One of the advantages of audio programs is the likelihood of listening more than once. It is an excellent medium for things you'd like to really learn well.

For example, John wants to improve his ability to deal with people at work. So he gets the audio version of the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People and listens to a little every morning on his way to work. The ideas are fresh in his mind at work, allowing him to easily put them into practice. Over a period of six months, he may be able to listen to the entire book several times, deeply ingraining the ideas in his mind and behavior, and really improving the environment he works in.

In your car you can listen to motivational programs, using that time to keep bringing your mind back to your goals and giving you a little shot of encouragement on a regular basis.

Let's do a little mental experiment. Think about what might happen to you over the next year if you listened to motivational and informational audiobooks whenever you were driving alone. Compare that with the result of merely listening to music whenever you were driving alone. The difference in the quality of the rest of your life might be significantly different. I know it takes a little discipline. But only a little. It actually feels good to listen to something useful rather than feeling you're just wasting time in traffic.

You don't need to throw out music, of course. It doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. But if you listen to music, remember that music is input too. Some lyrics improve your attitude. Some cultivate pessimism. Choose your music. Control your input. You might think I'm going to far, but you're going to listen to music anyway, right? And you have an abundance to choose from, right? Some great music has positive lyrics and some great music has negative lyrics. Make your choice. Control your input.

The same goes for what you watch for entertainment. Some movies lift you up and make you stronger and more determined. Some movies bring you down. And you have plenty of each to choose from.

Also consider the difference between TV and movies. In a movie, you avoid commercials. You don't have to get input you don't want. Watching TV, you get lots of input you can't control.

If you still indulge in a little bad news, make sure you balance it with at least an equal amount of good news.

and people too

That goes the same for who you choose to interact with. Some people are chronically negative. You can avoid them or try to make them less negative. Maybe you enjoy trying to convert people to positivity. If you do, I salute you! But some people may not be worth the effort. In an extreme example, it would not be worth your effort to spend your entire lifetime working to convert a single person from pessimistic to optimistic when you could help hundreds with the same lifetime. Use your time well.

And even if you don't want to convert people directly and just let your example teach, you still need to be aware that some people squash positivity wherever they find it. People who bring you down are probably the most powerful source of pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism you will personally encounter. Be careful of these people. Don't interact with them if you have a choice. If you must talk with them, interact as little as you can and interact superficially. Being superficial is a way to protect yourself. One of your points of vulnerability is communication with others — especially people who are well infected with lampreys already. Protect yourself with superficial communication. Read more about that here.

Along the same lines, there are also people who aren't really riddled excessively with negativity, but whose conversation tends to cultivate pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism. When you converse with them, they tend to talk about events in the news you are helpless to change, or they talk about grievances they have with a third party. For these situations, I recommend exerting a little more influence on the topic of conversation. You can be subtle about it but less passive. You can bring up topics. You can ask questions. You can direct and guide the conversation into more positive waters, without anybody knowing what you're doing. You will make your input more positive, more life-affirming and healthier, for you and for them as well. Keep attempting to influence the direction of your conversations and learning from your attempts. Develop the skill. It will protect you from many lamprey invasions, and as a side-effect, you'll have a positive impact on the world.

When you are guiding conversations, do it in a way that doesn't cause the other person to have to argue or defend his negative point of view. You have to use some finesse. When you approach negativity in a forceful or attacking way, you cause the person to more deeply entrench themselves in their own negative position, making them even more committed to it. Don't do that. Use the principles from How to Win Friends and Influence People to help you. In every way you can think of, you can stop negative influences by controlling your input.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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