Make Me Uncomfortable

My karate instructor recently shared a story by one of her old students. He was a police officer who received a call about a “dangerous person.” He was to approach with his gun drawn. When he got there, he watched the person from a distance for a while, sheathed his gun, walked up, and said…

“Hey. Nice moves.”

The perpetrator was practicing Tai Chi. The operator had been told someone was “moving strangely” and that the “lives of those in the park were in danger.” Fortunately, the officer also practiced Tai Chi, so he recognized the practice as entirely non-lethal.

Americans are creatures of convenience. We have mastered the lazy lifestyle: we watch more TV than anyone else (cit. 1) and buy more fast food (cit. 2) than anyone else. We have more internet users per capita than anyone else (cit. 3) — people who stare at a screen, that is, instead of at other people. We pay to have our trash ferried miles away and buried underground. Depending on the year we have the most cars per capita than any other country (cit. 4) so we can drive ourselves to work instead of carpooling with other people, biking, or taking the bus. We have our clothes made in other countries. If we spend 8 hours at work, 8.6 hours asleep (cit. 5), 4.7 hours watching TV (cit. 1) and another 4.7 on our phones (cit. 6), that leaves… quite literally negative time for socializing. Granted, TV and phone use are easily multitaskable (if my data are correct, something must be multitaskable, and it’s probably not sleeping), but do we really want our only social interaction to happen while we multitask?

There is nothing wrong with being a little lazy every now and then; in fact, one might argue that taking time for oneself is healthier than not. The problem with convenience is that it removes the substance of a task. If you drive to work every day, you might not appreciate how far you are traveling (the US has the 2nd most motor vehicles per capita (cit. 17) and one of the longest commutes in the world (cit 8)). Bury your garbage out of sight and you might not appreciate how much you produce (I hypothesize that trash from the US travels among the farthest of all trash in the world, which may be why the US produces the most waste per capita (cit 7)). Shop more? The US has more purchasing power per capita than any other country (cit. 19) and ranks the 21st most expensive out of the 123 countries with an evidence-based cost of living index (cit 9).

Any one of these, of course, could be considered circumstantial. What doesn’t seem so circumstantial is the correlation between convenience and social isolation.

Technology is seductive. Homes, offices, domestic appliances and clothes now play a crucial role in our lives, but not many of us question exactly how and why we perform so many daily rituals associated with them. Showers, heating, air-conditioning and clothes washing are simply accepted as part of our normal, everyday lives, but clearly this was not always the case. Available technology has increased vastly over the past 100 years — in the early 1900s, there were no washing machines, TVs, computers, radios, cars, trains, and the list goes on. With all this technology has come convenience, and the United States along with many other countries have lapped it up.

Certainly, there are some ways we are better for these adoptions. The medical impact is the perhaps the most obvious: between 1930 and 2014, life expectancy has increased by 31%, from 60 years to 80 years (cit. 10). In 2013, the three leading causes of death were heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases; in 1900, they were pneumonia and the flu, tuberculosis, and diarrhea (cit. 11). There is little to no evidence to suggest, however, that we are at all happier despite these advances. In fact, one study indicates that we are less happy than we were 30 years ago (cit. 22).

Even if there was conclusive data on happiness, of course, there are still many nuances to consider. What about crime rate? Quality of life? Variety of food? Certainly, technology has affected many of those. The point I’m making here is not that technology has had no effect — the antithesis there is self-evident — it’s that the increases in convenience technology has permitted us also bring an increase in social isolation and closed-mindedness.

Technology is not inherently good or bad. Take nuclear technology, for instance. Nuclear energy has produced millions of kilojoules of energy at incredibly low cost. It powers much of the world — 19% of the US (cit. 16) and 80% of France (cit. 17) for instance — and is the cleanest of any source of energy baseload energy source (cit. 15). Yet the two nuclear bombs dropped in mankind’s history killed 220,000 people (not many compared to hundred million or so losses in the wars of the 20th century, but the point stands). Any given technology can be used to improve our lives or destroy them.

It is the way we use technology that matters.

And sometimes we aren’t even aware of the way we are using it.

The way we use much technology narrows our focus. It isn’t poorly intended, of course. It’s very well intended: by filtering out the things we aren’t interested in, we can spend more time focusing on what we want. We drive faster farther to work so we have more time to spend at home with our families (except not really because, as previously mentioned, we have among the longest commutes in the world). When we use about 10 billion K-cups a year, enough to circle the earth more than 12 times stacked end to end, we’ve just had a lot of really convenient coffee, but also just added 88 million pounds of plastic to the landfill (but who cares, right? It’s in a landfill! How convenient…).

We do a lot of filtering. Our Google searches are filtered of links we are less likely to click on, our Facebook feeds are filtered of opinions we might disagree with, our solo commutes are filtered of other travelers. This makes our lives very convenient — but also very isolated.

In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, when the survey was given again, the most common response was zero (cit. 20).

Consider the following activity:

  • With a pencil, make a list of ten items that are near you.
  • Choose a color on one of those items (for instance, if your computer monitor is black, you might choose the color black) and erase all items that are not that color.
  • Do nothing with the list for a week.
  • After that week, bring the list with you the next time you leave your home, and try and remember all ten items you originally wrote down (you can look at the list).

It should go without saying that listing the items you’ve erased is much harder than listing the items you didn’t. What you’ve done is made a list of indexed items — in this case, items indexed by color. And what Google and Facebook and targeted advertising and friend lists do is they index people and opinions. And so you never see the opinions, the articles, the viewpoints, or the people that aren’t on your list because they aren’t in your index. Sure as those items near you exist, those opinions and people still exist. And they aren’t any less valid because you don’t know about them.

The immune system, for instance, functions very well at a young age. There is a hypothesis for which information is still being gathered called the hygiene hypothesis: children in hyper-clean environments are more disease prone at older ages (cit. 25). Why? Their immune systems never learn to defend themselves. The wider a variety of germs children are exposed to, the better their body learns to cope. If we are germ-isolated as children, what happens later in life? Those with poor immune systems separate themselves from the rest of us. They have to live in hyper-clean environments later; they can’t survive in environments they haven’t build immunity to (or they can, they just have asthma, allergies, and get sick more often).

Similarly, I would argue that the wider a variety of people and opinions one is exposed to, the wider a variety of people and opinions one can come to understand. Our perspective of the world is shaped by our experiences, and our definition of right and wrong is not immutable — it is defined by how wide the variety of humanity is that we experience. Grow up in the US and you probably tip your waitstaff, but go to eastern Asia and doing so is an insult. In some countries, it’s rude to sit in the back of a cab; riding shotgun lets the driver know you consider them your equal (more country-based cultural differences here). Are any of these behaviors “right” or “wrong?” Of course not! Known as the mere exposure effect, this is a widely substantiated phenomena: we prefer not what is right or works better, but what we’re familiar with (cit 13, 14).

And technology keeps us from being familiar with more. Again — and I can’t say this enough — it is well intentioned. If you play soccer and not tennis, it’s certainly a waste of your time to be shown ads for tennis rackets instead of soccer balls. But isn’t it possible those ads could change your perspective of soccer? Or what if — based on the fact that most people who don’t play tennis also don’t play football — you are never shown an ad for football, even though that’s something you might like if you were exposed to it? You will never know.

These are grossly simplified examples of the vast and complex inner workings of your brain, but the same principles do apply to concepts such as race, gender identity, social norms, and any given stereotype. Stepping outside our comfort zone is valuable besides it is humbling — it teaches us that maybe, just maybe, what we’re familiar with isn’t the only way of doing things. Maybe there’s a much better way: Europe’s sex-positive education has led to a teen birth rate one-eighth that of ours (cit. 26); Germany’s charging $2/lb for trash has resulted in a 50% decrease in waste since implementation in 1994; many countries have implemented polymer bank notes which create 60% less environmental impact, last 2.5 times longer, and allow for more security features than traditional paper notes (cit. 28). There are some great ideas out there.

But technology is, intentionally or not, segregating us from other people, opinions, and ideas. The average child now spends less time outside than the average prisoner (cit. 30). Almost half of adults spend less than 30 minutes outside a day (cit. 31). And as I mentioned before, we spend more than 8 hours combined watching TV or looking at our phones. How do we meet people nowadays?

100 years ago our hobbies were chucking dirt clods in each others’ eyes, going for walks, dancing, making music, entertaining, and just in general being active and being social. Ask almost anyone what their hobbies include nowadays and Netflix is sure to top the list. When you walk down the sidewalk or wait for the bus, nobody’s talking, everybody is on their phone. Friendship and trust are created through spontaneous connection (cit. 33) but we spend 93% of our time indoors (cit. 31).

Photo credit Brightside

While the average American paycheck has risen over the past 30 years (cit. 22), its happiness-boosting benefits were more than offset by a drop in the quality of relationships over the period.

“The main cause is a decline in the so-called social capital — increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair,” said Stefano Bartolini, one of the authors of the source (cit. 22).

A recent story in the LA Times:

We lead increasingly comfortable, atomized lives. Our cars feature separate climates for driver and passenger; our mattresses offer separate degrees of firmness. Comfortable? Sure. Convenient? Yes, but if we can’t compromise on the small stuff, like mattress firmness, how can we expect to do so for truly pressing problems?
We’d also be a lot wiser if we were to embrace difficulty rather than run from it. In the 1990s, UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork was studying how students learn and noticed that when students faced obstacles, they retained more information in the long run. The techniques vary — making learning material less organized, varying the setting, using fonts that are harder to read — but the principle is the same: When we break a sweat, we learn more. Bjork called this phenomenon “desirable difficulty.”
Or consider a 2014 study on note-taking. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, of Princeton University and UCLA, respectively, asked half the students in a college lecture to use laptop computers, and instructed the other half to use paper and pen. The laptop users took more notes, but the paper-and-pen group scored considerably higher on comprehension.
Mueller and Oppenheimer surmised that the longhand note-takers couldn’t mindlessly transcribe the lecture verbatim. They were forced to condense and synthesize the material — in other words, to think deeply about it. They benefited from desirable difficulty.
Human beings benefit from boundaries, obstacles and, yes, inconvenience. Scratch the surface of our frothy lives and you see this truth laid bare. Take, for example, Buddhism. It is not the easiest religion, as anyone who has attempted to meditate for five minutes knows, yet it is immensely popular. Why? Because difficulty works.

The late philosopher Robert Nozick’s thought experiment offers further proof of that. It’s a simple experiment: imagine you can push a button to be happy. Would you? Most people answer “no.” Yet isn’t happiness what we all desire? Of course it is, but we don’t believe happiness comes without work. And you know what? It doesn’t.

Experiencing difficulty, pain, and discomfort actually makes people happy. The simplest form of this is the euphoric high many feel after exercising; additionally, groups of people that experience pain are brought closer together than those that don’t (cit. 21), people who recently experienced physical pain enjoy food shortly thereafter more than those that didn’t (cit. 24), and people who experience emotional pain are more resilient to it in the future and more likely to be happier (cit. 23).

Technology makes life easy. It protects us from experiencing opinions that conflict with our own, meeting people we otherwise wouldn’t meet, and going places we otherwise wouldn’t go. If you feel like I’m attacking you, like I’m challenging your way of life — good. Let’s make each other uncomfortable. I’d rather live inconveniently and be more aware of the way the world works, having experienced both things that make me uncomfortable and things that make me comfortable, than having experienced only the things I’m comfortable with. Every now and then do I want to sit on the couch with a drink and watch my favorite TV show that I know I’ll like? Yes. There is absolutely a time and a place for that.

But for all its boon, technology hasn’t made us happier. There is a time and a place to learn about other people and to be open towards and accepting of ideas, people, and actions you’ve never heard of. Too often we use technology in ways that narrow our perceived perspective.

Every now and then, turn off the TV. Call someone instead of texting them. Buy your groceries from a new store. Friend someone on Facebook you don’t share political views with. Ask a stranger for directions instead of using Google Maps. Make yourself uncomfortable. That’s how you know you’re learning something. That’s how you know you’re connecting with other people.

Originally posted on Trip the Life, a blog about mental health in the modern age.

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