Sometimes it’s hard to believe that just a couple of decades ago the internet was a relatively new thing. Kids played games on the street instead of online, dating didn’t involve a computer matching algorithm, and hanging out with friends meant that you went out and met them – in person! Today, the prevalence of e-mail, texting, Skype, video gaming and conferencing, online media, and social networking has changed our lives as profoundly as cars and jet planes changed the lives of previous generations.
It’s not just that the methods of interaction are different; it’s the effect that they are having on us as human beings. Despite all this electronic ‘connectivity’ – or maybe because of it – people are feeling more and more isolated. There’s a whole slew of articles and studies out there linking social media especially with increasing loneliness, bullying, depression and anxiety.
But I believe that’s like holding a box of matches responsible for starting a fire. We can’t blame the medium for the message. Social media is intended to be a way to communicate widely and quickly, but so often it becomes a platform for the vain, the mean, and the just plain silly. Real information, intelligent discussion and valuable insights often get lost in the avalanche of posts.
While I’m very interested in interesting things that interesting people have to say, not everything is of interest. As Elaine once said on Seinfeld, “I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutia of every single daily event.”
Now you may be reading this and thinking, THIS is excruciating minutia. I apologize. All I’m saying is, just once in a while, put down the mouse, step away from the computer, and connect – to the offline world.
Oh Lord, I’m tired, it’s time to go to bed
Way after midnight, and the wine’s gone to my head
Lying here upon the shore just listening to the waves
And it’s been a perfect day
These lyrics begin Chris de Burgh’s eloquent lilting ballad, Perfect Day. The first time I heard it was at an outdoor concert. Chris de Burgh was alone on stage and the music seemed to float out from his piano and roll away into the night. It was easy to imagine the scene that he paints, friends picnicking by the sea and lying under the stars singing Beatles songs while he played guitar. And then he tells his love to remember it if they should ever part.
What is it that really makes a day ‘perfect’? So often, I look forward with great anticipation to achieving some milestone or going to a special event, only to find it anticlimactic. And then there are those other times when for one reason or another everything seems right with the world and I’m enveloped with a sense of harmony and peace.
It can happen when I’m with people I love or I’m doing something fun or if I’m outdoors at a beach or in beautiful countryside. Once in a while though, it catches me by surprise – looking up while driving on the highway and seeing the moon rise, huge and orange, against a backdrop of streetlights that just can’t compare; waking to a diamond and glass landscape after and ice storm; or the sound of a summer breeze ruffling the leaves of the silver birch on my front lawn. Reminders that no matter what storms may come our way, in the wondrous and eternal natural world it is always a perfect day.
What is happiness? How can we achieve it? Can we be happy even when things aren’t going well?
These are some of the questions that ‘Positive Psychology’ tries to address. This branch of psychology has become hugely popular in the last couple of decades and spawned a vast number of educational programs, institutions and literature all devoted to finding out what makes life worth living.
Actually, this is not a new concept. People have been trying to figure out how to achieve happiness for millennia. Socrates taught that a moral life was the key to self-fulfillment. Buddha advocated a Middle Path. And Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was basically a roadmap to joy (the word blessed is substituted for happy).
It’s interesting that the American Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right – not happiness itself. That’s what positive psychology research seems to be finding as well; emotional wellbeing may be partially inherited, but it’s not static. It can change depending on a number of factors such as the relationships we have, the pleasure we feel in doing work or a hobby we love, being close to nature, or being kind and caring about other people – but also not caring so much what other people think of us that we feel embarrassed or anxious much of the time. In other words, it’s a journey rather than something finite and forever.
I believe all of the above factors contribute to a good life, calmness, contentment and a feeling of belonging, but true joy? That’s different. Maybe real happiness is just those elusive moments in time when for any reason – or no reason – we come close to the power of the divine in the world and sense how the world was meant to be.
As Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of the Open Road:
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged
In high school, I had to read Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery as part of my French curriculum. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than somewhat boring science fiction – a prince from another planet who meets a pilot stranded in the desert and they do nothing but talk nonsense…in French! Understandably, there was a record dropout rate for that particular class.
Then recently, a book club that I attend selected this story as a discussion topic. After much groaning and procrastinating, I finally gave in and read it again.
And it was beautiful.
The Little Prince for what it is – a deeply philosophical fable, filled with humour and wisdom and such sweetness that it leaves you surprised and moved. The book established de Saint Exupery as one of France’s foremost authors and more than a half century later is still considered a brilliant allegory of faith and love and innocence lost and found.
Yet this is a children’s story. Maybe the author was making a point. Some things in life are so complex and so profound that only children and animals can understand them.
I spend a lot of time staring off into space. Sometimes I drive for hours in the countryside north of my house, just watching the trees and fields glide by. A favourite weekend activity is ‘sitting’.
In other words, I like doing nothing.
Well, not really nothing. In those moments of stillness, my body is, as poet and activist Bif Naked puts it, ‘unclenching’. My thoughts float into a more creative zone where new ideas and creative solutions to problems reside. Sometimes even my soul comes out of its shell, and we have a talk over a cup of tea.
In the 1990’s, Seinfeld – a show about nothing – became one of the most ground breaking comedies in television history. Turns out, they were on to something. A number of studies have shown that energy is restored to our brain cells while we sleep. Play is so vital to children’s social, physical and cognitive development that it is recognized by the United Nations as a right for every child.
Doing nothing may not be a popular concept in North American society, where busyness is seen as a status symbol, but it has its fans. God took a break from creating the world and rested on the seventh day. Dogs have got it down to a fine art. And A.A. Milne advocated it decades ago in his own inimitable way:
Christopher Robin: What I like most of all is just doing nothing.
Winnie the Pooh: How do you do just nothing?
Christopher Robin: Well, when grown-ups ask, ‘What are you going to do?’ and you say, ‘Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
Winnie the Pooh: I like that. Let’s do it all the time.
Technology is getting on my nerves today. Computers, cell phones, tablets, cameras, everything. It’s rather like a car, or the human body. When it functions well, it can be a powerful and useful tool. But when it doesn’t, it’s a source of frustration and stress.
At heart, I’m a Luddite (a term taken from 19th century textile workers who staged an uprising when modern machinery threatened to take away their jobs). Yes, I see the paradox of writing an anti-tech BLOG, yet in a way it’s reflective of what those workers experienced.
I write first drafts in long-hand,love finding personal letters and cards in my postbox, loathe the erosion of privacy through spyware and minicams, and believe that social media is making us LESS social because it replaces actual human interaction with a Brave New World form of virtual relationships.
In the end though, I have to accept and use technology. Adam and Eve (or perhaps Steve Jobs) have taken a bite of the apple and the old world doesn’t exist any more.
The industrial revolution steamrolled over the Luddites and altered the fundamental structure of their society. The tech revolution is doing the same to ours. Will it be good or bad in the long run? We’ll see.