Why Marcus Aurelius Might Tell You to do a Digital Detox
Take a view from above — look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.28
Imagine you are looking out onto the Earth from above. Our planet — blue and brown — shrouded by clouds. No humans visible — just the Earth from afar. Perhaps at some point your mind will wander back to its inhabitants. The human comedy has been going on for thousands of years, and will likely come to an end. You are out of the picture — just as you were before your birth and just as you will be after your death.
In A Religion of One’s Own, the author Thomas Moore quotes astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his experience seeing the Earth from above on the Apollo 14 mission: “The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big.” Moore characterizes Mitchell’s feeling of deep connection to the universe as a mystical experience.
Mitchell’s words point to the Stoic philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD). The Stoics, including Marcus, believed god to permeate the universe. For them, god, or eternal reason, orders every part of the world — from the rain storms in Miami today to my hand movements as I type this essay. The idea that a divine reason resides in everything implies that we must learn to accept the unfolding of the universe even when we want it to be otherwise. For example, Marcus saw that death is part of this unfolding and enjoined us to accept our demise. Furthermore, unlike many of us today, he rightly recognized that it is misguided to worry about fame, since it is beyond our control and will inevitably fade.
Marcus conceived the practice of viewing the world from above as part of a philosophical mindset, and stressed that this gaze is something to be embodied by those who aspire to a good life. This practice invites us to neutrally observe the world’s comings and goings, rather than to be caught up in them.
His advice could not be timelier. With the exponential expansion of smartphone use in the past decade, we now have the ability to be continuously appraised of world events as well as the lives of connections near and far. Consider the following statistics. American users unlock their devices on average fifty-two times per day. And, unsurprisingly, young adults use their smartphones even more — unlocking them over seventy times and clocking in an average of 260 minutes of screen time daily. In both a physical and temporal sense, we hardly keep these devices at a distance. Compared with telephones, print media, or television, smartphones bring with them an enhanced capacity to keep their users up to date. These devices can be consulted in nearly all situations: in the street, during meetings (much to the dismay of our colleagues!), on public transportation, and so on.
But is keeping up with everything and everyone — not just the Kardashians — worth it?
How does our connectivity affect us? PSU (Problematic Smartphone Use) is well known to correlate with increased anxiety and depression, and has also recently been connected to increased worry and anger. Relatedly, teenagers and adults report experiencing what researchers dub “Facebook depression,” which is described as “feeling low positive and high negative mood associated with large amounts of time spent on SNS [Social Networking Sites].” This depression appears to stem from the sense of inadequacy caused by comparing one’s life to those of other social media users.
Now, “Facebook depression” is not the only facet of modern connectivity that gets us down. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America Survey™, “56 percent [of adults] say that [following the news regularly] causes them stress.” As Arthur Evans, the APA’s chief executive officer points out, “[w]ith 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern.” Evans’ words underscore my concern — the volume of information made possible by mass media, especially social media.
These facts are worrisome. If our mental health is negatively affected by unending streams of updates from individuals near and far, and from the news, then it is worth asking how to remedy this situation.
The problems associated with hyper-connectivity have motivated many to take “vacations” from their smartphones. Articles about “digital detoxes” and “digital minimalism” abound. There is some evidence that digital detoxes can improve our memory, sleep, and conversational skills. The author Baratunde Thurston’s oft-cited article about his twenty-five day digital fast extolled the silence and “deeper connections” that he enjoyed during his break from social media. However, studies of digital detoxes are still in their infancy, and evidence of the effects of these practices — either positive or negative — is only emerging. Whether the hype about digital detoxes is inflated or not, what popular articles often fail to explain are the reasons why breaks from our devices are worthwhile. Beyond the purported psychological boosts, why should we consider disconnecting from our devices?
Here is where Stoicism has an answer. Imagining the world from above would place us at a distance from the daily news cycle and alleviate our stress by helping us realize that most “newsworthy” events will soon be past. Likewise, embodying a cosmic viewpoint would decrease “Facebook depression” by putting the lives of those who prompt feelings of inadequacy into perspective. On the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if my friend took an incredible trip abroad? Marcus would probably ask of anyone who envies celebrities or “influencers” — namely, the persons who have acquired such fame on social media that they can influence lifestyle choices — whether the glitz and glam of their lives has much significance on a universal scale. Does it really matter that Lady Gaga “shock[ed] the 2019 Met Gala with Mile-Long Gold Foil Lashes”? What would viewing the world from afar teach us about our inflated perception of others? Are their fame and possessions really worth coveting?
The conception of philosophy as a way of life implies that philosophizing ought to transform us personally. Philosophy does not merely consist in theorizing, but in living a better life. Like Marcus, I believe that adopting a view from above could be a transformative experience that promotes peace of mind. Technological advances have permitted means of communicating that we might never have imagined beforehand. Yet they come at a price: keeping us continuously “in the loop” can cause depression and stress. Harkening back to the Meditations, we might recall that all of us, including celebrities and influencers, were not known before our births and will soon be forgotten after our deaths. As Marcus urged us to do, take a view from above!