In one of my favorite episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a crew member on leave brings back a computer game so addictive that eventually the entire crew, minus one young cadet, abandons its stations and sits glued to the device. The game, which stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers while diminishing its higher functions, turns out to be part of an alien plot to take over the ship. I think of this episode sometimes: at the airport baggage claim, on buses and trains, in restaurants, even cars stopped at a red light — pretty much any place where you might look around and observe suddenly that every single head around you is bent over a device, as if in a collective reverie.
Alien plots aside, the urge to blame the evils of technology can be strong. Survey after survey finds that we believe ourselves to be simultaneously overwhelmed by and addicted to our devices. We lament their disruption of our work, family, sleep, play and personal lives — so much so that we seek tech fasts, detoxes, Sabbaths and national days of abstinence. As a long-time stress columnist, I covered stories about tech-related anxiety in dozens of snapshots. As an author, though, I had the opportunity to synthesize the fragments I had been writing about for years and came away with a dramatically different sense of the larger picture of modern stress.
These days I find myself less concerned by technology and tech addiction than by the stories we tell ourselves about technology and how stressed we are by it. Our stories matter. They form our perceptions which, in turn, become the translators of our every moment. A stressor in the broadest sense is any stimulus that knocks us out of balance. That stimulus can be real, but it can also be imagined. And right there, within the particulars of how we perceive things, lies the devil of modern stress. Stress is not what happens to you, but how you think about what’s happening to you. If you believe yourself to be under siege by technology, so you shall be, both physiologically and psychologically. And this is exactly why we need to bring our stories about our digital lives in line with reality.
The stress of an unprecedented pace
There is no doubt that technology can feel overwhelming at times as we find our footing in an era of dramatic highs and lows, of wondrous advances and discoveries, with lives that can move at an unprecedented pace. But what we have is the capacity to make choices that serve us better: to choose everyday habits and practices that are sustainable for us as individuals, for our families, communities, nations and planet.
“[I]f we allow ourselves to blame the technology for distracting us from our children or connecting with our communities, then the solution is simply to put away the technology,” writes journalist Rebecca J. Rosen. But then, observes Rosen, we “absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political and … technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us.”
Over the past decade, thought leaders from various disciplines have been pointing to a shift under way in our world. Author Daniel Pink observes in his book, “A Whole New Mind,” that we are entering a new age, “animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life.” I believe that a great deal of what we perceive as stress and overwhelm is due to growing pains, as we enter this new age and evolve beyond quickly deteriorating constructs that no longer work for us. The real puzzle when it comes to our digital lives has less to do with technology and more to do with the twin issues of moderation and sustainability — issues with which we are dealing on many other fronts as well, including our food supplies, diets, spending, clutter, lifestyle, economy and income inequality, and planet and environment.
So what do moderation and sustainability look like when it comes to technology? Reframing our greatest stress points highlights the following principles:
- Community. Research underscores the importance of relationships and community and points to the need for downtime, playtime and family time, carefully guarded and prioritized, and woven consciously and expressly throughout our days and our children’s days.
- Sacred Spaces. Literature highlights the need to establish wide-open “sacred spaces” both within and without, free of distractions, to create, imagine and put things together, and to simply be.
- Influencers … We must understand the profound impact of emotional contagion and how both good and negative emotions can spread quickly through technology and social networks.
- … and buffers. Mindful of emotional contagion, we must preserve the boundaries of our world when necessary, learning to be selective about what (and whom) we choose to expose ourselves to, particularly during the most vitriolic and heated period of a crisis. We must be judicious and disciplined about how and when to shut down the devices to protect ourselves and our families — particularly children — from overwhelming circumstances and people.
- Self-awareness and discipline. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And while most of us are well aware of this principle, our behaviors and habits are often mindless and automatic. Asking the uncomfortable “whys” and embarking upon self-reflection, mindfulness, meditation and an examination of the power of habit can serve as critical modifiers of behavior and dramatically influence destructive stress patterns in our lives.
Digital detoxes, fasts and Sabbaths can be great, but they are often little more than Band-Aid solutions. Stress is ultimately the tale of personal sustainability, and the real issue with technology is not whether it is overwhelming or hurting us, but whether our everyday habits and practices are sustainable over the long term. The answer for many is a resounding no, and herein lies our opportunities for growth, evolution and greater mastery as our society works to usher in a new age animated by fresh thinking and novel approaches to our lives, relationships and work.
Amanda Enayati is the author of “Seeking Serenity: The 10 New Rules for Health and Happiness in the Age of Anxiety.”