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What a smart phone can't find: happiness

I watched a basketball game with one of our sons the other night. Every time I made a comment or asked an off-handed question he went to his iPad to summon statistics or video clips. We didn’t experience the game together in real time; we processed it search by search.

By Jim Sollisch / February 10, 2012

Isabel Zuckoff texts on a Blackberry while waiting for a friend outside South Station in Boston July 7, 2010.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A person holding a smartphone is approached by someone who has news to share. Just as the person starts to share his news, the smartphone user completes the sentence, saying, “That’s so 46 seconds ago.” It’s AT&T’s campaign for its new phone with a faster 4G connection. 

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In another commercial, a man is having dinner with his wife. He’s got a phone hidden in his lap that keeps feeding him highlights of the game. She says, “Are you watching a game?” He says, “Of course not. What do you think I am, some sort of summoner, who can summon footage to his phone?” That’s exactly what he is. And what we’re all in danger of becoming: people who summon so many moments simultaneously that we are no longer capable of being fully present.

We seem to have decided that no single moment is worth going all in on. We keep our options open. Better not to commit. So my 14-year old niece sits on the couch next to her friend, making plans for later that day but texting with several other friends in case something better comes up. And business people read and send emails during presentations, not sure if the meeting they’re in is as worthy of their attention as the meeting they missed but which they can read about in the recap that just arrived in their inbox.

Living in the moment can seem so 46 seconds ago, and yet according to a Harvard research study on happiness conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (author of “Stumbling on Happiness”), people are less happy when they’re distracted. And they’re distracted from the task at hand almost 50 percent of the time. The authors write in the journal Science “A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

The idea of living in the moment is as old as Buddha. It’s just that never in human history have moments become so difficult to live within. Take a romantic dinner for two. You arrive at a restaurant and your spouse checks in on FourSquare. She discovers that she has a friend who has also checked in at the same restaurant. Romantic interruptus. Later you open the menu and start checking reviews on your phone. And so it goes. Another moment lost to sharing and searching.

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