Back in high school, I had a conversation with my older brother about happiness. At one point, he asked me to imagine what it would be like if people from a hundred years ago could see how we live today. What would they think? After witnessing our car-phones, back-massagers, plumbing, international flight, computers, medicine and everything else they’d be amazed at our modern marvels. After they picked their jaws up off the floor, they could even speculate how happy all these luxuries made us. So why aren’t we happy?
That was twenty years ago. Since then, I learned that objects can’t make us happy and that luxury quickly becomes necessity. After all the initial charm and euphoria fades, we end up with expectation rather than appreciation. Not only is tech not necessarily making us happy, is it making us more unhappy?
We are unlike any other being on the planet. We need a proper pattern of food, sleep, shelter and social interaction. If these narrow guidelines were upended for a period of more than three days, the damage could be profound, irreversible and perhaps deadly. We are in fact averse to feeling pain of any kind; physical or emotional. We avoid discomfort at all costs.
While it makes sense to avoid pain, we shouldn’t conclude that pain is always bad. In many ways, pain is a wonderful thing. My body sends messages when I’m hungry, overtired or cold so I can respond accordingly. When neurotransmitters sprint across my nervous system to tell me that I’m holding something hot, it can save me from a trip to the burn unit. Ignoring these messages would be like ignoring a smoke alarm or a deal on Groupon.
Not only do we strain to stay warm and fed, but we’ll do almost anything to avoid heartbreak, shame, fear, guilt, frustration or any other bad experience. So, while everyone wants to stay far away from splitting their pants at work, getting rejected or guessing wrong that somebody is pregnant, emotional discomfort is useful. Fear, shame, anxiety or other less than pleasant feelings are actually disguising important messages.
Feeling ashamed or guilty can guide us towards correcting something we’ve done wrong. If I wasn’t ashamed or guilty of losing my temper or forgetting an appointment I might never muster the conviction to improve. Other emotions like fear and anger are often just barriers to self-understanding, gateways into ourselves that have ameliorative effects if we dare to pass through. They are flashing lights telling us to investigate ourselves and start “digging in the dirt to find the places we got hurt “- to quote Peter Gabrial.
If we don’t allow ourselves to be mindful of how we feel, we fall short of becoming the better person we could be. We stay more habitual, less reflective and ultimately tone-deaf to who we are. Why do we shut things out?
I think one reason is that we are scared to be alone with ourselves. We are terrified of what we’ll find out. We develop ways of hiding from reality and insulate ourselves from what is real.
Abraham J. Twersky, a highly regarded psychiatrist, author, and speaker wrote:
“What most people describe as relaxation is actually diversion. You divert your attention to the book, needlework or golf ball.
Diversions are perfectly OK, but they are actually escapist techniques. Work and diversion are fairly healthy techniques. Unfortunately, some people escape into alcohol, drugs, food or gambling…
Why are people using a variety of escapist maneuvers? What is it that they seek to escape? Very often it is from themselves. “
Life today is cluttered it is with diversions. Are our homes shelters from the elements to help us with our basic needs or have they become cocoons of diversion – our own fortress of solitude? The radio, TV, phones, social media, streaming and more do not make for an environment conducive to pausing and being in touch with ourselves, self-reflecting or even thinking.
Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” found in his research that the amount of free time we spend in front of our screens has tripled since 2007.
Alter argues that tech designers make their various platforms so that the user finds it harder and harder to walk away. For example, modern technology often lacks what he calls “stopping cues” – natural prompts that tell us to end an activity. (More frightening is that many insiders in the industry recognize this and aggressively limit their children’s usage of phones and tablets).
On average, people spend somewhere around 8-9 hours a week watching Netflix or other streaming services. Some experts estimate that the average adult spends about 20 hours a week online (teens average about 27 hours). Those numbers are staggering but are just the tip of the iceberg.
We are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Alter said in a New York Times interview:
“If you’re on the phone for three hours daily, that’s time you’re not spending on face-to-face interactions with people”
I would add that it’s also time that you are not spending with yourself. Technology hastens our urge and ability to block-out.
Distractions could always be found in the innocuous book, game, social gathering, or bottle of wine, only now with the relentless pang for technology, we get there faster. We have warp-drive for our escapism so that we can plunge down the rabbit hole at the speed of light so our endorphin starved minds can find a happy place where it will be safe and sound. It may feel good, but it won’t feel right.
The Kotzker Rebbe said:
“There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”
It’s a pretty deep idea and it speaks for itself, but I like how another blogger named Sara Esther Crispe explained it:
“Our wholeness, our completeness, is a process. And part of that process is allowing ourselves to feel and be vulnerable enough to be broken. If we have never been broken, we can never be whole. I love that. I need that.”
Yeah, I need it too.
It’s not fair to blame technology for all our woes. What we can say is that the way we are using it (or the way it is being used on us) is driving a wedge between us and ourselves. Before that chasm widens too much, try to take control. Break away, break down and break free.
Be broken and break through.
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