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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Isabel Zuckoff texts on a Blackberry while waiting for a friend outside South Station in Boston July 7, 2010.

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. 

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.

I was watching a basketball game the other night with Jonah, one of our sons. I asked him how the two teams were doing this year. I expected his best guess. Instead he summoned the standings on his iPad to show me. A minute later Los Angeles Clippers’ power forward Blake Griffin scored on a monster dunk. I said it was the best dunk I’d ever seen. Jonah immediately called up a video of a previous Griffin dunk that was even better.

Every time I made a comment or asked an off-handed question, Jonah went to the iPad. I’m not sure he saw more than two minutes of the game. We didn’t experience the game together in real time; we processed it search question by search question, each one being an opportunity to leave the moment.

It’s even getting difficult to live fully in fictional moments. One of the great joys of reading a short story is that you willingly suspend your disbelief and in return are transported to another time and place. But if you’re reading on a tablet or e-reader, you are prompted by links to search out the meaning of a word or find related biographical detail. You might even be encouraged to engage in a real time conversation with other readers of the same book.

Edgar Allen Poe championed the short story as a literary form superior to the novel because you could read it at one sitting and not have the flow of the story interrupted by the distractions of life. Well, he certainly wouldn’t want to be published online today. I may not be as fussy as Edgar, but I’d like you to read this piece from start to finish and not click on all those links and related content in between paragraphs. I’d like you to follow my argument in an uninterrupted straight line. But that’s getting more and more difficult.

Technology is changing the very nature of experience. It’s no longer linear. We don’t move from one moment to the next anymore. We live in several moments simultaneously. Our computers screens allow us to keep multiple windows open at once. Everything we do is instantly shareable, and everything we desire is searchable.

But the one thing you can’t search for on even the smartest phone is happiness. For that you have to stop searching and simply be.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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