In a November 1989 episode of The Cosby Show, Clair Huxtable sends Cliff to the store for some last-minute Thanksgiving groceries. When Cliff returns without the canned pumpkin, eggs, or nutmeg, she sends him out again. Wet leaves blow inside as he opens the door and, with a withering look, exits into the relentless storm outside. If you watched this episode when it aired, you might have laughed along with the live studio audience as Cliff returns a second time, still without eggs. But if you happened to catch a rerun in the past decade, you probably wondered—if only for a split second—why he didn’t just pull his cell phone out and call or text while he was still at the store to make sure he had everything.
We have become so connected, and so accustomed to being connected, that it is difficult to imagine a world without the technology that keeps us close. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram. If you haven’t taken to any of these, surely you text and email. Two decades ago, technological innovation centered around convenience and saving time. Now it is how we communicate.
As we build our virtual social networks, it’s easy to forget that we’re charting new territory. Certainly, a cell phone would have streamlined Cliff Huxtables’ grocery shopping that day. But has the ability to call, text, tap, or lurk any time, for as long as we want, made us happier overall? It’s a question worth asking, and Max Strom, personal transformation coach and author of the forthcoming book There Is No App for Happiness: How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience (April 2013), is looking for answers.
Strom sees a common denominator creeping behind an array of problems from depression to high blood pressure to the current recession. Technology has begun to distract and overwhelm us, knocking our priorities out of order. We might have encyclopedic knowledge of the Twitterverse (or The Cosby Show), but “our own personality, our own life is unexplored territory,” says Strom. “With some focus on our internal life and changing ourselves personally, we would solve a lot of the world’s problems very quickly.” He cites the economic collapse of 2008 as an example. “Because there was what I call a gradual ethics collapse in our society, we experienced an economic collapse, and it’s really a side-effect of a larger problem.”
If dreams and relationships are the stars by which humans have navigated life for generations, then media (social or otherwise) have littered the sky with light. We can barely discern which points will guide us in our efforts to make life meaningful. So we reach for our GPS. “A lot of this is not being discussed in terms of what we can actually do about it,” says Strom in a voice that’s unrushed, assured, and calming. “A few people are pointing out our over-infatuation with social media and so on, but what I want to focus on as a teacher of personal transformation is what we can do about it on a very personal basis. I don’t really think we can change the world until we change ourselves.”
It may come as a surprise that Strom doesn’t advise logging off Facebook for good. “I’m not against social media,” he asserts. “I’m pointing out [...] the habitual use of it and dealing with people you don’t even know—not keeping track of someone who lives in Europe and you live in America. Some people do this hours a day. They can’t walk out the door without checking their Facebook.”
Recent research backs Strom’s assertion. A University of Gothenburg study of Facebook users found that while 85 percent of the 1,000-person sample use Facebook daily (with the average for all users at 75 minutes a day) less than half feel they really need it to keep up with friends. It begs the question, why use it so much?
“The second part is,” he continues, “studies now show that human beings communicate 90 percent non-verbally. If we’re choosing to use text as our predominant method of communication, and that includes email, we’re having a 10 percent relationship. And putting smiley faces or frown faces at the end of a sentence is not the same. It’s almost like this is the new white sugar of our time. The more we eat, the more we want and the worse we feel.” Notably, the Gothenburg study found that women who used Facebook the most also reported the lowest levels of happiness and contentment with their lives. A U.S. study by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that 32 percent of Facebook users reported feeling sad as they looked at friends’ pictures on the site, comparing those photos to their own.
But if social media don’t actually make us happier, can we be convinced to try something else? Strom hopes so. “We need to turn our attention more toward our innate, internal technology that we already have, and have had. We already have all the apps we need inside of us. But we need to start using them.” He recommends “three imperatives” that constitute something of a first aid kit for re-centering and restoring happiness.
The first is beginning a practice of self-awareness. This has roots in the Buddhist practice of self-inquiry, Strom explains. “You ask yourself questions, you get to know yourself so that you really do know what your strengths and weaknesses are, what your gifts are, what your ethics are, clearly. Your desires and motivations. Simple questions to begin with, such as, ‘How do I define happiness?’ Most people that I speak with really aren’t clear, it’s more of a vague notion. But everybody says they want it. If we’re not even clear what it is, how can we expect to get it?”
Strom’s own idea of happiness doesn’t revolve around temporary or material pleasures. “We know now that external circumstances don’t predicate happiness. As we know, there are many poor people who are very happy and wealthy people who are extremely depressed, suicidal. What I’m talking about is the daily experience of a meaningful life. I find that when people feel like they have meaning in their lives, they define themselves as happy. They want to get up in the morning. It’s not just a fleeting experience because they had a glamorous holiday or won the lottery or something, but they actually have meaning. Meaning brings fulfillment. So the first imperative is self-awareness.”
This may seem like common sense. After all, most people will tell you that happiness is not contingent on a high salary, cool headphones, or even witty Twitter exchanges. But do we really believe it? Strom tells the story of a young couple who had just found their dream home. The husband wanted to buy it and thought they could afford the house—if he worked a little more. His wife was hesitant because it was very expensive. But this was his dream, he told her. “He did his cost-benefit analysis in terms of money only and went for it,” says Strom. “Shortly thereafter he was working 60, 70 hours a week. He hardly saw her. He started having sleep problems and had to medicate himself to sleep. Grinding his teeth at night. He didn’t have time to exercise, so he started gaining a lot of weight. When she did see him and when his kids saw him he was very grouchy.”
These sacrifices almost destroyed the couple’s marriage, but finally he agreed to sell the house. “She said in a few months it was like he became 10 years younger again. So there’s somebody, clearly, who was thinking it through—he believed he was—in terms of ‘Can I afford this house?’ But he didn’t put any terms of happiness, health, or family into the equation. That is an incomplete cost-benefit ratio.” Though the couple was able to recover and recalibrate, being in touch with their innermost desires in the first place might have helped prevent the stress and drama. Only after we’ve separated momentary satisfaction from long-term meaning and fulfillment can we decipher which goals and actions are worthy of our time and attention.
“We kill time,” says Strom. “We think we can just fill it up with entertainment. The average American watches TV for four hours a day and I don’t even know what the statistics are for video games.” The second in his trio of imperatives involves examining our relationship to time, understanding that time is life itself. “Over here I’ll talk about life as precious,” explains Strom, “as something I want to last longer, as a collection of moments. And over here I’ll talk about time as something that I have to kill. ‘I have time to kill, I’ll spend six hours blowing up battleships on a flat-screen, or spaceships.’” Most of us are familiar with the urge to occupy our minds with easy entertainment. The Gothenburg study found that among young Facebook users, two-thirds claimed they use the site to kill time.
“You have to understand that [life and time are] the same thing,” Strom continues, “but we’re separating them. If you look at your watch without just seeing what time it is, you’re counting down the moments of your life. I don’t think there’s anybody out there who, when they’re on their deathbed, if they’re asked what their regrets are they’re going to say, ‘I only wish I had watched more reality TV.’ We have to choose our technology wisely. If we bring technology into our life, it should simplify our life. It should give us more free time, not take it away.”
The same principal can be applied to social media, or to work. “When we make decisions that involve our life-force energy—money, time, these are really parts of the same thing—we have to ask […] what are the costs going to be to your life, your happiness?”
The third imperative is a daily regime integrating breath and movement. “Our breath is interrelated to our emotional life and our mind,” says Strom. “When we breathe in a certain way, every day, there’s a cumulative effect which helps to keep our nervous system calm. If we don’t keep our nervous system calm, we’re going to end up having to medicate ourselves. Sometimes people aren’t connecting those dots. It’s like, ‘Why is it important to calm my nervous system?’ Well it’s so you don’t have to take blood pressure medications, so you don’t have to take anti-depressants, that’s why. That’s the other end of it. That’s what’s going to happen to you if you don’t learn, subconsciously, to keep your nervous system calm.
“When you do a breathing regime on a regular basis, you’re not only calm, you’re clear-minded. It’s like drinking coffee without the jitters or the mood swings or the collapse at the end of the day because the coffee’s gone. You’re clear, you’re sharp, you can focus.” Strom cites hatha yoga, qigong, and tai chi as effective practices for finding this connection between mind, body, and spirit.
Once the nervous system and mind are calm, we begin to see the world differently and become less self-centered, explains Strom. “People can have the best intentions, but if we’re chained to the past or frozen in our emotions, which so many people are, we can’t get very far no matter how good our intentions are. When a human being is suffering—and suffering includes depression, hunger, anxiety, sleep-deprivation—we are very myopic and less sympathetic to other people. And when we heal and find we have meaning in our life, our scope opens up to include other people and we become very sympathetic to other people. So as we heal, we become, I believe, more ethical, more compassionate, more empathetic. A lot of our problems are solved simply because of that.”
Undeniably, technology and media help us connect to one another in meaningful ways. Still, these tools are designed to attract and keep our attention. Once we begin tweeting, pinning, and posting it can be difficult to strike a healthy balance. But who wants to remember their life as one lived through a screen? Fortunately, finding the right path is as simple as asking ourselves a few questions—questions we should have been asking anyway. In a world full of vague directions, Strom’s is a reassuring message. You are the GPS and you can tap in any time, for as long as you like.
Max Strom’s new book There is No App for Happiness: How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience will be available in April through Skyhorse Publishing. Utne Reader assistant editor Suzanne Lindgren spoke with him before his TEDxKC talk August 2012. Read Suzanne’s blog “Invisible Ink.”