In the absence of concrete evidence of how to be happy, we have to do our own research. We do know some basic things: that socialization, preferably the face-to-face kind, breeds happiness, that alcohol and drugs do not (though unfortunately socialization in concert with drugs and alcohol tends to be a lot of fun), and that simple things make us happy — things we take for granted, like sunlight, exercise and relaxation. But there are negative forces that propel us, too, namely fear. Fear of being broke and homeless might seem like a burden until we realize that this fear puts us in the world, thrusts us out into the world. Working hard is generally a more satisfying pill to swallow every day than whatever we get in the absence of work, namely guilt, incessant calls from creditors, and depression. There is the stress of a brain that is being used or overused, and the stress of a brain that is being neglected.
Not that the brain doesn’t like its share of idleness. But in modern times this idleness — deep sleep, ideally seven or eight uninterrupted hours in which our brain and body do their necessary repairs and maintenance — is hard to come by. The reasons for this are the same as they’ve always been: stress, work, and bad habits, like drinking too much caffeine and alcohol. But there’s a relatively new vice in the mix, namely staring at screens. The habit of staring at screens is so entrenched (it’s a habit, after all — nothing radical about that concept) that it prevents us from sleeping properly and actually having vacations when we do go on them. When we do, what exactly are we vacationing from? We are in a different location, hopefully a new and exciting one, but we’re too concerned about a) providing others with physical evidence that we are there, and b) checking up on whatever it is people are doing back in the place we have been working tirelessly for months to escape from.
The iPhone had its six-year anniversary this year. This hallmark of design and technology undoubtedly marked the beginning of the way we live now: bossed around by an ever-growing number of apps that appeal to us the same way Fisher Price toys appeal to toddlers (not surprisingly, the apps also appeal to toddlers). It was fun for awhile, but it seems (or I hope) that 2013 will be remembered as the year when people started chastising each other more about what it is they do all day, or what it is they do every time they can snatch a moment away from their Facebook-less work computers. Call it mindfulness (a fast-growing sector of the self-help market, and that can’t be a coincidence).
Whatever it is, whatever prompted it, it has been taken up in earnest this year. People seem generally less annoyed about articles like Jonathan Safran-Foer’s New York Times op-ed piece “How Not To Be Alone” or the comedian Charlene DeGuzman’s wonderful video “I Forgot My Phone.” When my sister and her husband took off for a family residence on Long Island one weekend this summer, she was politely asked to leave her iPhone at home. (She didn’t, and then they argued in the car about it, and then eventually she shoved it in the glove compartment and didn’t touch it for the rest of the day. Hey, it’s a start.) This was a big development. Maybe videos like “I Forgot My Phone” inspired it. Maybe it was that there are suddenly more young people, or relatively young people, authoring these cautionary tales — people who belong to the same generation of people who create most of our favorite apps and websites. It’s not a youth revolt, but the tide has undeniably turned.
This week CBC reported on the opening of north America’s first Internet addiction clinic, in Pennsylvania. Knowing all that I know, it’s still hard for me to see Internet addiction as anything other than a teenage boy playing World of Warcraft for 18 hours straight. It’s hard for me to accept that my sister may be an Internet addict, that I may be, that my boyfriend may be, that my father may be. We each have our different “reasons” for wanting to spend so much time online. But it doesn’t matter: we spend far too much time online. It’s the mysterious and mercurial ways that we each use it that are so damn annoying, as “I Forgot My Phone” so astutely pointed out. It’s not annoying when we’re doing it, of course, because we know exactly what we’re doing. We have a plan! And we will be done in five minutes! Fuck, leave us alone! You’re just as bad as we are! What was so affecting about that video was that DeGuzman would be doing the exact same thing as all her annoying friends had she not accidentally left her phone at home. It was this mistake that opened her eyes to the horror of how we live. She was forced to look at it. And now, happily, we’re being forced to look at it too, because the video is online, and we’re already there anyway.
Still: the phone, I find myself saying, isn’t really the Internet, is it? It’s…a phone. Right? No. The phones are what got us into this mess, never mind that we barely call anyone anymore. Steve Jobs wanted us to have 1,000 songs in our pocket. Then he realized it would be much cooler if we could have every fucking thing ever in our pocket. As my friend Tal rather boldly wrote on the Chicago Reader website right after Jobs’s death, “Sure, Apple products have made certain thing easier, but they have also produced just as many unproductive endeavors, most of them involving the word ‘browsing.'”
Browsing. True, that word alone helps us get somewhere in all this. Because when I think of “browsing” I think of wandering the stacks of my university’s library for the right book, randomly selecting fiction writers off the shelves a few times a month and taking them home with me. I discovered Joan Didion this way. Chris Offutt. A. L. Kennedy. Iris Murdoch. Of course you could argue, as a commenter on Tal’s article did, that the Internet is another antidote to ignorance, just the way a library full of books has been for centuries. And it is. But when we “browse” now, we don’t always, or even often, have a distinct goal in mind. We’re browsing to browse. I browse for the same reason I drink coffee and alcohol. Browsing is the destination. Caffeination is the destination. Alcohol-induced blissful calm is the destination.
How can we curb this when many of these apps are welcome aspects of our careers, especially if we’re in creative fields? Who’s to say Instagram doesn’t help a wedding boutique owner, or a fashion designer, or a professional athlete, gain exposure, make more money, inspire others? There is always that feeling, that hope, that something on the Internet is going to be the thing that leads to some sort of big break, or even a small break.
So, fine: if it’s work, surely we can leave work at work. Surely we don’t need to scroll through Instagram 20 to 30 times a day. Where do we draw the line? How much is too much? I’m going to make the argument that even if things on the Internet can be interesting or inspiring, we are generally in an idle state when we’re online, especially if we forget why we came, what we opened the browser or app to do exactly. I don’t think much would appear to be happening in our brains were we to take an MRI of the Internet-browsing human brain. If the other arguments that have been made aren’t working — that we’re becoming too isolated from one other, that we all have ADD now, that we don’t have good manners or interpersonal skills anymore — maybe the argument that so much browsing makes us literally unhappy will.
Here are the results of my very unscientific but hopefully convincing research: since I stopped browsing Twitter and blocked Facebook from the hours of 9 to 6 every weekday and unfollowed all but 20 people on Instagram on January 1, 2013, I have written about 150,000 words: some fiction, mostly nonfiction, some in the form of a diary. More or less removing those apps from my life — I do occasionally tweet and post things to Facebook and Instagram — has increased my productivity about 500%, if we’re considering just the number of words I’ve written this year compared to last year.
Oh, but productivity sucks, you say. Work sucks. Yes, I thought so too, until I started to force myself to pound out at least 2,000 words every day. Shockingly, I became happier. Crucially, it was a different level of happiness. A higher level. It was joy, as opposed to pleasure, to borrow from Zadie Smith’s essay. The only times I have been really unhappy this year were the days I didn’t write, or didn’t write enough. That lack of productivity was a gateway to other forms of unproductivity. It’s like an insidious disease. If I didn’t write, I was also not likely to read, or exercise, or listen to music, or play music — my other happy pills.
Who knew that my brain actually wanted to synthesize the events and thoughts of each day, write fiction, write personal essays, write articles? Well of course it does. It wants to be used. It’s just that there’s a reflex in the brain that likes to convince us that idleness is more pleasurable than action. That drinking is superior to thinking. That browsing is superior to creating. The only solution I have found is to forcibly remove the triggers of idleness from my life. Just as idleness begets more and varied idleness, productivity begets productivity. For me, happiness has simply become a matter of filling a certain number of coffers per day: writing (working), reading, talking with people face-to-face, exercising, going outside, spending time with pets, listening to music. Interesting: the Internet isn’t required for any of the activities I just mentioned.