I should have gone cold turkey on tech. I really should have.
It would have been the perfect time – should have been the perfect time.
But I didn’t. As I spent 10 days on BC’s gorgeous sunshine coast with family, I also trundled along my assortment of connected gadgets.
But I will say it was a partially successful detox. I didn’t crack open the laptop as much as I usually do. I generally restricted use of my iPad to reading a book.
But my phone – it was my phone, always within reach, that tempted me with social media’s siren call.
In a podcast, Andrew Selepak, social media professor at the University of Florida, suggests that rather than doing a total detox that is probably doomed to fail, you use vacations as an opportunity to use tech as a tool rather than an addiction.
I will say that for most of the time, that’s what I did. As long as I was occupied with something I was fine.
Boredom is the enemy. It’s boredom that catches you. And the sad thing was, I really shouldn’t have been bored. I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I had the company of people I loved. I saw humpback whales – up close – for Heaven’s sake. If ever there was a time to live in the moment, to embrace the here and now, this was it.
The problem, I realized, is that we’re not really comfortable any more with empty spaces – whether they be in conversation, in our social life or in our schedule of activities. We feel guilt and anxiety when we’re not doing anything.
It was an interesting cycle. As I decompressed after many weeks of being very busy, the first few days were fine. “I need this,” I kept telling myself. It’s okay just to sit and read a book. It’s okay not to have every half-hour slot of the day meticulously planned to jam as much in as possible.
That lasted about 48 hours. Then I started feeling like I should be doing something. I was uncomfortable with the empty spaces.
The fact is, as I learned – boredom always has been part of the human experience. It’s a feature – not a bug. As I said, boredom represents the empty spaces that allow themselves to be filled with creativity. Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says it is critical for brain health to let yourself be bored from time to time.
“Being bored can help improve social connections. When we are not busy with other thoughts and activities, we focus inward as well as looking to reconnect with friends and family.
Being bored can help foster creativity. The eureka moment when solving a complex problem when one stops thinking about it is called insight.
Additionally, being bored can improve overall brain health. During exciting times, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine which is associated with feeling good. When the brain has fallen into a predictable, monotonous pattern, many people feel bored, even depressed. This might be because we have lower levels of dopamine.”
That last bit, right there, is the clue why our phones are particularly prone to being picked up in times of boredom. Actually, three things are at work here. The first is that our mobile devices let us carry an extended social network in our pockets. In an article from Harvard, this is explained: “Thanks to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, smartphones allow us to carry immense social environments in our pockets through every waking moment of our lives.”
As Walf said, boredom is our brains way of cueing us to seek social interaction. Traditionally, this was us getting the hell out of our cave – or cabin – or castle – and getting some face time with other humans.
But technology has short circuited that. Now, we get that social connection through the far less healthy substitution of a social media platform. And – in the most ironic twist – we get that social jolt not by interacting with the people we might happen to be with, but by each staring at a tiny little screen that we hold in our hand.
The second problem is that mobile devices are not designed to leave us alone, basking in our healthy boredom. They are constantly beeping, buzzing and vibrating to get our attention.
The third problem is that – unlike a laptop or even a tablet – mobile devices are our device of choice when we are jonesing for a dopamine jolt. It’s our phones we reach for when we’re killing time in a line up, riding the bus or waiting for someone in a coffee shop. This is why I had a hard time relegating my phone to being just a tool while I was away.
As a brief aside – even the term “killing time” shows how we are scared to death of being bored. That’s a North American saying – boredom is something to be hunted down and eradicated. You know what Italians call it? “Il dolce far niente” – the sweetness of doing nothing. Many are the people who try to experience life by taking endless photos and posting on various feeds, rather than just living it.
The fact is, we need boredom. Boredom is good, but we are declaring war on it, replacing it with a destructive need to continually bath our brains in the dopamine high that comes from checking our Facebook feed or latest Tiktok reel.
At least one of the architects of this vicious cycle feels some remorse (also from the article from Harvard). “ ‘I feel tremendous guilt,’ admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,’ “
That is why we have to put the phone down and watch the humpback whales. That, miei amici, is il dolci far niente!