(22 of 99)

Part of the “Ask Mark Anything” series.

Question: How does being outside and unplugged from technology impact levels of happiness?

The Internet is just the latest cool thing to come down the pike, and like many innovations before it (books, sewing machines, the Bee Gees) it has been roundly lambasted as the end of the world as we know it. The arrival of computers you can carry in your pocket (some of them also make phone calls) has amped up the issue by a factor of one hundred, since we now have 24/7/365 access to all the knowledge of mankind. Also all the ignorance of mankind, which currently outpaces the knowledge of mankind by a ratio of 6:1. All of this assumes you are not on T-Mobile, as we were, in which case you will find yourself standing outside your office with your phone held above your head like the Statue of Liberty, longing for one measly bar of service so you can text customer service a brief hate message, and having 24/7/365 access to nothing except your own bitter tears of regret.

Nobody worries that they might be using their connected devices too little (except students in my classes, who are required to survive almost forty consecutive minutes before the scheduled ‘phone’ break), so this leads me to believe the more common problems are too much use and inappropriate use (Anthony Weiner, aka “Carlos Danger,” this means you). Here are some basic ways that technology can get in the way of happiness. Remember the 3 pillars of happiness are people (relationships), purpose (some reason for what you do), and perspective (recognizing your place in the scheme of things).

PeoplePhubbing is a newish term that describes using a mobile device while ignoring the physical human beings around you, a behavior that is well tolerated by people who are simultaneously re-phubbing you, but generally not appreciated by others. Is this a big deal? Since we check our phones, on average, once every 6-7 minutes, it probably is. One study found that 70% of people felt that phubbing hurt their ability to interact with their romantic partners, so it is definitely a hazard for your love life. Also it’s a phun word to say.

“But I am on (latest social media site) in unceasing contact with thousands of friends,” you might say. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” The average human being can successfully maintain around 100 friendships at a time (I can do 19, and once did 20, but one was our dog), so clearly those 14,000 ‘friends’ you have on Facebook are not friends in the traditional sense. Don’t believe me? Would your 14,000 Facebook friends help you move a couch? No. Would they loan you $100? If so, let them, because that’s $1.4 million and then you can unfriend them so you don’t have to pay it back. Would they tell you if you had a dollop of mashed potatoes on your nose? No, they would share the picture with their 14,000 other ‘friends’ and mock your pain (ROTFL), so clearly they are not real friends. BTW Enrique from Sao Paulo did show up F2F at my house last month and offered to help us move a couch, but IMHO we didn’t need the couch moved, so I unfriended him, which takes me down to 18 BFFs. LOL!! WOOP! DOH!

Purpose. The 2010 Facebook game Cow Clicker  captures the the futility of much of online life. I am not making this up.

The player is given a pasture with a single plain cow, which the player may click once every six hours. Each time the cow is clicked, a point is awarded; if the player adds friends’ cows to their pasture, they also receive clicks when the player clicks their own cow. Players are encouraged to post announcements to their news feed whenever they click. A virtual currency known as “Mooney” can be used to purchase special “premium” cow designs, and the ability to skip the six-hour wait to click again. (Wikipedia)

Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker to mock the futility of online games, particularly Farmville, and was stunned when it went viral, amassing more than 50,000 players. Saddened by the game’s success, Bogost decided that the cows in the game would be “raptured” in a Cowpocalypse, which ended the game just over a year after it was launched. Again, I did not make any of  that up, so don’t blame me if your cows go missing.

I am completely, totally in favor of regularly unplugging from life by engaging in mindless activities like watching Netflix, playing bingo, chasing cars, burying nuts, or attending meetings at work. But when the mindless activities become your life, that’s a problem, and when your life goals coalesce down to repeatedly clicking something (a task that tic-tac-toe playing chickens mastered decades ago) or obsessively ‘liking’ every single solitary post made by your 14,000 (or 19) friends, or driving your virtual tractor, you are missing the point. Also your descendants will be embarrassed and disappointed when your eulogy is something like, “She liked a lot of posts. A whole lot of posts. Wow, those were some posts, and she really, really liked them. All of them. Great, let’s go have some lunch!”

Perspective. The algorithms used to fill your news feed show you mostly items that confirm what you already think, leading to an echo chamber in which you may conclude that the whole world agrees with you, when it’s really just your own voice bouncing back. This happens regardless of which political party you are currently least disgusted with, and it happens because the goal of Facebook is not to give you nice useful information, but to keep you (like the chicken) clicking away as long as possible. Facebook knows that the best way to keep people around is to tell them what they want to hear, and Facebook is good at it: Americans now average fifty minutes a day on the site, almost as much as they spend eating and more than they spend practicing the harp or yodeling.

So….what about getting outside instead? My daughter could write pages and pages on this one, but she is probably out wandering around some wilderness somewhere. This shot shows her demonstrating her perspective on it:unnamed.jpgand my wife writes her own blog about this, so I’m kind of coming around to their perspective.

Here are two simple reasons that unplugging and getting outside can help your happiness.

Awe. Nobody every felt genuine awe sitting at their desk at work, except for maybe when they opened their January credit card bill. Feeling awe is great for your perspective and most of us experience this most easily when we encounter something huge and not made by human beings, like a 200 foot tall redwood, or a T-Rex body-surfing over Niagara Falls. If you haven’t felt this in a while, find a way to do it.

Joy. The original human leash was an actual leash, which evolved into the pager, and today it’s the smart phone, which means you are on call 24/7. We need time when we are not not on the clock, since work is mostly just work, and nobody ever laughed so hard at work that milk spurted out of their nose. Actually I did this one time at work when I saw a picture on Facebook of a cat laughing so hard that milk spurted out its nose.

Andy Rooney used to say that vacation isn’t actually better than ‘regular’ life; it’s just different. But if you always wear your digital leash, vacation starts to feel a whole lot less different, and a whole lot more like work, and home starts to feel a lot like the office, and suddenly you feel like you are working 24/7/365. If the thought of going without your Internet fix for a day or two makes you break out in a cold sweat, it may be time to detox.

Finally, you may not think you like being outdoors, like the friend who told us she “did not like the smell of sunshine.” But remember that nature is really, really big, and there is probably some part of it you could learn to like if you tried. Even if you conclude that you are not an outdoorsy type, you are still going to reap huge rewards from the time and effort you invest in the people you live, work, work out, and worship with, here in the real, physical, non-clickable world. Even if your friends aren’t all that great, aren’t they better than clicking electronic cows?

Follow this blog to get real tips to help you live a more enjoyable real life in the real world.