Watching the nightly news on television was a recipe for unhappiness. It's just one lesson from two years on the road in Europe, even though the depressing headlines will follow you through other channels.
In 2018, I set off with my partner in our camper van on a road trip across Europe that would wind up lasting more than two years. The experience has, not surprisingly, changed us in many ways: from how we think about bigger questions of work and life, but also our daily habits. For one thing, it has ended our attachment to television — but not for the reasons you might think.
Before beginning the van life, in our Nissan Primastar nicknamed Foxy, we lived in an apartment and had a nightly rendezvous of watching the news on TV while eating dinner. Most of the time, those 30 minutes left us, well … depressed. Even before COVID, the news mainly revolved around bleak events and bad politicians.
Consuming this regular dose of current events, relayed not just by television but also our smartphones, was draining us, making us feel pessimistic about the future of society or the fate of the planet, blasés about politics, etc. But we didn't really realize that back then. It was only when we left on our trip that we felt the weight of all of this slowly lifting.
During our travels, we made a conscious decision to cut ourselves off from the news world. We removed the pop-up notifications on our smartphones and stopped watching live feeds about current events. Instead we chose to focus on learning more about the history, the language and the culture of the countries we were visiting.
This was bound to redirect us toward YouTube, so much so that eventually, our smartphones became our new televisions.
The platform allowed us to access content from around the world, much more than TV.
For years, YouTube had been a place to watch funny and weird videos, from a sneezing baby panda to that guy in awe of a double rainbow. But the platform has evolved since, and publishing videos there has become a full time job for an array of "YouTubers' and "content creators."
On YouTube, we found videos about topics we were really interested in, from a fellow French "vanlifer" sharing his experiences to documentaries about tiny houses around the world. We also discovered creators specialized in niche topics, from the restoration of ancient rusty objects to explaining the names of places and people or a funny show specialized in maps — topics that would probably never be broadcasted on traditional television channels. As people who are very interested in other cultures and languages, we felt the platform was also allowing us to access content from around the world, much more than TV.
On YouTube, we found videos about topics we were really interested in. — Photo: Hello I'm Nik
Now that we are back in one place (our van trip ended just three months before the first COVID lockdown in France), we are also watching the news again — although in a different way: opting to go directly to videos from websites like Vox, Le Monde or The New York Times, which, rather than reacting to what we call l'actu chaude (breaking news) take news item and dissect it, analyze it, with cool graphics and designs that make it pop out from the screen.
We felt we just couldn't go back to our old habits.
Contrary to a limited two-minute segment on TV, the videos allow the journalists to develop the item and its content with more nuance. But the big difference with our old TV habits is also that you can choose to click on what you want, by the topic.
Just like French philosopher Gaspard Koenig, who cut himself completely from the news during one summer while traveling on horseback across Europe, when we came back from our trip, we felt we just couldn't go back to our old habits. "I tried to pick up the news feed, but after such a long period of time away from it, I wasn't able to absorb such large quantities," Koenig wrote in Les Echos, wondering "do we really need all this information?"
For us the answer is clearly no. And ever since we stopped trying to catch up with the frenetic pace of news channels, we feel much better. Maybe we should have listened to what Morrissey says in his song "Spent the Day in Bed": "Stop watching the news / Because the news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make you feel that your mind isn't your own."