It is Sunday afternoon, gloomy and windy outside and you decided to clean up your house. You purge old clothes you never wear or wonder why you bought them in the first place. You make a book donation box for all those reads that you thought you need for your work, but really Google is now doing for you. You also decide to toss out some of your household items, because really you could use some space. And all of a sudden your house is not only clean but you also feel really good about yourself and the space and simplicity you created. Now you don’t have to decide anymore if you wear black pants A or B because you only have one black pant. You can save all that cognitive energy for more important tasks in your life.
Dr. Carter writes about this in her book The Sweet Spot. She talks about how to decrease decision-making situations (and increase productivity) even with very mundane things (i.e., what to eat, what to wear, how to work-out) that help to save our self-regulation and cognitive resources for more important tasks later in the day. While I would not go so far and always have the same breakfast and workout routine as she has, --because after all, these mundane things can also be a source of pleasure and happiness when we do change them up-- she does make a great point. Ultimately, this is what habits are for: something becomes automatic so we can save cognitive energy on the task at hand. Unfortunately, the carol of habit does not discriminate between good and bad ones, which is why we have to learn to discriminate between the two.
Simplifying Our Digital Life
Making our lives simpler, getting rid of clothes we never wear, books we never read and household items we never use is a liberating experience. The clutter is gone and we can see the really important things that bring us joy much clearer. The question is: why can we not do the same in our digital lives? It is not necessarily about the number of apps on our phones or wearable technologies on our wrist, but it is the question: Do we really need them? Now, you will say, yes, of course, I do. All of those apps and tools help me in specific aspects of my life: They help me find a parking spot, pay for my coffee, help me finding my way around and connecting with my friends and business contacts. And I am not here to refute that. After all, this is the goal of technology: To make our life easier.
But does easier always translate to happier?
For that, we probably need to define first what happiness is? According to happiness researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness includes positive emotions and a feeling of living a life that is worthwhile and good. Combining Epicurus's idea of happiness as a hedonic experience of pleasure and Aristotle’s understanding of happiness as the experience of meaning through doing good for others, I understand happiness as living a fulfilled life, full of meaning and purpose, sprinkled with joy.
Our Digital Lives and Happiness While joy in the short run (hedonic happiness) is very pleasing, pursuing it as a sole goal of happiness is superficial and short-lived. One could argue, the majority of the apps on our phones are geared to provide exactly this short-term pleasure experience. After all, this is how the tech industry gets us hooked and how we, as a society, developed more and more into hedonism junkies: I want pleasure (aka dopamin release) now, now and now. The top grossing Apple IPhone apps this month are games including Clash of Clans, Game of War and Madden NFL. The top free apps include Facebook Messenger, the Facebook app, iTunesU and Instagram. There is a reason why 52% of all Americans check their phones a few times an hour or more. In addition, the constant notifications we receive get us hooked on our phones. The evil process behind that is intermittent reward conditioning which leads to the most resistant behavior adoption.
Technology That Undermines Our Awareness
But it is not only the pleasure that gets us hooked on our digital clutter and creates a habit or even dependency on it, but it is also the way the apps decrease and undermine our awareness of the actual acts they are performing. After all, their sole purpose is to help make life easier and thus, automatize actions we otherwise would devote cognitive energy too. That in and of itself is not bad, but if the function itself is mainly making purchasing goods easier than I do see that as a problem. Examples are the Amazon app, ITunes or Starbucks app, which makes the actual transaction process completely automated so that we don’t even notice how much money we spend. Again, this is not to say that these apps in and of themselves are "bad," however, the way they do oftentimes take over our choices can be seen as problematic.
Of course with apple pay (which soon can be expected to become a mainstream form of paying with your smartphone) we haven even less oversight and awareness about our spending habits. This is good news for businesses, economists would say, but not really when it increases peoples’ debt --which is a well-known contributor for low well-being. When buying things becomes a game, almost like playing store when we were kids, where the association between our hard worked for money, is substituted with a play like button on our very much toy looking devices, then how can we practice awareness of what we really need?
In that hungry moment at the grocery line, I feel like I very much need that extra package of potato chips and cookies (but really I just need a nutritious meal) and when I see that new activity-tracking device on Amazon I totally feel like I need that on my wrist too. Or do I just want it?
How do we know what we really need compared to what we want?
Advertisers are experts in creating needs and the evolution of technology in many ways follows this same principle. So the question is: How can we reconnect with what we really need versus what we want because advertisers made us believe that is what we need?
I think reconnecting with our intuition would be a good start. To do that, simplifying our life is a good strategy. Once we are able to focus on fewer things, we notice more what the clutter is we don’t need, and what the stuff is that does serve our needs well. And when we are uncluttered we can hear our inner voice much more loudly and we are able to focus on one thing at a time completely and deeply, work and finish projects efficiently and thus, create more output in less amount of time.
Have Technology Serve Us
Now, even though this may sound like retrieving from technology and deleting all the apps on our phones, I think about it more as rearranging priorities. It may include some purging but certainly not retrieving. Again, I think technology can be designed in a way that it serves us, and not the other way around. It can be designed in a way that it learns about us and then makes suggestions for what we really need in a particular moment. By tracking our habits, purchasing behaviors, biorhythms, and social connections, it could be the handler for self-regulation and help us become aware of our needs: “Do you really need this gadget right now? You are getting to your low phase of the day, maybe you should take a break?”
Maybe the Christmas season is a good time to reevaluate our needs and rearrange our digital clutter. Instead of setting resolutions for the New Year that will prove much harder to follow through with than anticipated, we could start the New Year with a simplified digital version of ourselves. We could use and demand a technology that serves our needs, which may automatically bring about New Year resolutions that translate into positive habit formation assisted by technology.
How about starting with a clean slate into the New Year literally and really clean up that digital clutter?
This way, we can figure out what really serves us to live a fulfilled and meaningful life, sprinkled with joy, and use technology as an assistant in that process.