As I spent 10 days on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast with family, I also trundled along my assortment of connected gadgets.
Still, I was able to have 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.
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. 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 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 not to have every half-hour slot of the day meticulously planned to jam as much in as possible.”
That part 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 has always been part of the human experience. It’s a feature, not a bug.
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.”
She continues: “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 factors are at work here. The first is that our mobile devices let us carry an extended social network in our pockets.
As Walf said, boredom is our brain’s way of cuing us to seek social interaction. Traditionally, this was us getting the hell out of our cave, cabin or castle, and getting some face time with other humans.
But technology has short-circuited that. Now, 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. That's why I had a hard time relegating my phone to being just a tool while I was away.
As a brief aside, even the North American term “killing time” shows how we are scared to death of being bored. 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.
At least one of the architects of this vicious cycle feels some remorse. "I feel tremendous guilt," admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students, as quoted in a Harvard post. 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's why we have to put the phone down and watch the humpback whales. That, miei amici, is il dolce far niente!
Good one, Gord. Thanks
Easy for me when I'm on vacation although I don't go on vacation all that much last one was in 2008. And I'm old school I don't have a cell phone I'd have a hard time working the smartphone, to begin with, LOL. I'm not on Twitter anymore wasn't my choice I wasn't going to give out the phone number they banned me for it last time I checked I could've appealed but I'd lost the appeal if I tried was suspended for 12 hours I appealed it and won this past summer.