We’ve all heard of digital detoxes. And we’ve all read the reports: phones are making us miserable. Social media is crushing our attention span.Technology is the thief of our happiness.
But is that really the case? I wanted answers, so yesterday I started reading Matt Haig’s book, ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’.
As an author, Haig is known for his lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety. The book, published last year, is all about his efforts to stay happy in the face of his mental illnesses.
But it’s about far more than that. It’s about how the modern world is making us all terribly unhappy, discontent and greedy. It’s about staying sane on a planet so lost in the universe of tech and social media.
After relapsing and falling victim to the vices of his mental health once again, Matt decides to take a break. A digital detox, so to speak.
‘The familiar path of recovery arrived sooner rather than later. And abstaining from stimulants — not just alcohol and caffeine, but these other things [technology] — was part of the process.’
In other words, he decided to unplug. And unplugging was the best thing he ever did.
There’s Happiness in Having Less
At the pinnacle of his sadness, deep in the throes of another bout of depression, Matt made a bold decision. To switch off.
He chose not to look at social media for a few days. He put an auto-response function onto his emails. He quit keeping up with the news, stopped watching TV and avoided every form of media that our society is so desperately predicated upon.
He also kept his phone out of his bedroom. He went outside more. He tidied up his things, decluttered his home and kept up these tendencies until his pain subsided.
As he puts it,
‘I had always, since I was first suicidally ill in my twenties, understood that getting better involved a kind of life edit. A taking away.’
I’m sure a lot of us could to with a life edit like his. Removing the things that don’t serve us is also a key principle of minimalism. To take away. Why? I’ll let Japanese minimalism advocate Fumio Sasaki answer that for you:
‘There’s a happiness in having less.’
A lot of us are unhappy not because we don’t have enough, but because we have far too much. I think it would help us enormously to get used to living with less and to find happiness in simplicity.
Although Matt didn’t experience some miraculous recovery as soon as he began his technological hiatus, things did start to get better. He stopped feeling worse. And after a few days, everything else began to calm down.
‘I began, in short, to feel free again,’ he writes.
A Life Overload
We live in a pretty crazy world. There’s always just so much going on and so many things to keep up with. Of course, we don’t have to keep up with everything. But regardless, whether it’s due to FOMO or out of mere boredom, we do. We’re always connected.
I find myself falling victim to the same habits all of the time. I’ll be deep into a book, watching with bated breath as the plot thickens and all manner of twists and turns begin to unfold.
But then my phone will buzz. And I’ll put the book down and look at it immediately.
It’s like we’re becoming slaves to the technology we supposedly use for pleasure. As soon as that tone sounds or our pocket friend starts vibrating, we press pause on real life and find ourselves pulled back inside the digital world. We can’t seem bare a single moment without our phones.
What’s going on? Why is this happening?
The problem is that we’re being overloaded. Overloaded by technology. Overloaded by information. Overloaded by life.
The Modern World and Our Emotions
I’m not writing this because I think technology is a bad thing.
In fact, without technology, we’d still be roaming the jungles and fighting each other with spears. Or with our bare hands, even, because technology isn’t just digital technology. It’s everything we’ve created — including spears. It is, as the dictionary puts it:
Machinery or devices developed from scientific knowledge.
So I’m certainly not bashing technology as a whole, digital or primal. It’s a wonderful and essential thing, and it’s saving a lot of lives.
But I’m also not denying the fact that technology often comes laden with a lot of disadvantages to our mental and physical health. Even sitting at a laptop can cause real physical dangers, from RSI to dry eyes.
And as physical and mental health are intertwined, couldn’t it be that the modern world of technology is also responsible for the way we feel? Or, more specifically, how unhappy a lot of us feel?
The answer is yes. Technology has certainly impacted my mental health and wellbeing, and I’m sure the same can be said for you and most of the people you know.
It doesn’t matter what technology provides us with if it does so whilst negatively impacting our mental health. What we feel is just as important as what we have. And if we feel bad, something needs to be done about that.
Sometimes I lie down to sleep at night and my mind is a mess. It’s like I’m a computer with too many tabs open or a debate at the House of Commons. It’s like it just won’t switch off.
I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I’m frazzled. And I’m sure you know exactly the kind of feeling I’m talking about.
Our minds are messy. They’re working on overdrive, accustomed to bouncing between apps, devices and social media platforms, never stopping for a moment just to settle and be present.
Alas, when we settle down at night to sleep, it’s difficult. Or when we spend a moment without some form of stimulation, like in meditation or conversation or even simply just to catch our breath for a second, we can’t do it.
Living mindfully is becoming harder than ever. So what are we supposed to do about it? How can we combat the tendencies of our messy minds, poor attention span and deteriorating mental health?
The answer, really, is quite simple. It’s as simple as it is initially uncomfortable. Sometimes, we might just have to pluck up the courage to switch off.
As Matt Haig puts it, to
‘be brave enough to switch the screens off in order to switch ourselves back on. To disconnect in order to reconnect.’
Returning to Real Life
When we make an effort to put down our phones and engage with the world around us, in a sense, it’s as though we’re returning to real life. I mean, I know technically we never really left, but we were also never really there. We’re always distracted by other things.
We are, of course, the only animals on this planet that fall into these tendencies. We don’t see cats and dogs posting photos on Instagram or scrolling through Facebook. They’re far too busy living. Being. Enjoying life.
Equally, we don’t tend to see depressed dogs or anxious cats. They’re not lost in thought or stressed beyond functionality. They’re pretty happy with the way things are.
We have a lot to learn from those animals and their mindful tendencies. Matt Haig outlines those lessons in Notes on a Nervous Planet.
In the book, he depicts a fictional conversation between a human and a turtle. The human asks the turtle for life advice, and here’s what it says:
‘If you really want to know, the advice I would give is to stop it. The rushing after nothing. Humans seem in such a rush to escape where they are. I would say: stop it. Don’t just take your time, be your time. Be happy and paddle in the water of existence.’
‘If you take life carefully, you can focus. You can be how you need to be. You can be at one with the rhythms of the whole earth. The wet and the dry. You can tune in to yourself. It’s rather wonderful, you know, being a turtle.’
Isn’t that beautiful? We can all take a lot from that short fictional conversation with between human and turtle. When we’re unhappy, anxious, whatever it might be, we have to ask ourselves this: are we connected? Not to the digital world, but to the real world?
Are we taking our time? Are we being present? Are we taking life carefully? Are we following the turtle’s advice?
And if the answer to those questions is no, then perhaps disconnecting is just the thing we need to do. Perhaps we need to unplug our devices so that we can plug ourselves back into the empty socket.
That’s what I’m doing, anyway. And it’s certainly helping.
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