The Search for Connection and Solitude in a Digital Age

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The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had a mission to break down spatial and geographic barriers and connect the world. In many respects he has succeeded. You can now instantaneously connect with family members or friends living across the globe. Moreover, you can virtually keep up to date on key milestone events in the lives of loved ones or distant acquaintances.

Despite the hyper connectivity that these technologies promote, preliminary research has identified several negative repercussions with excessive use of these applications. These applications incentivize individuals to post content of positive experiences in their lives in an attempt to receive ‘likes’ or social approval from their peers. This consequently causes us to incessantly compare ourselves to the artificial and manufactured social media profiles of others that we see online. Numerous studies have pointed to the association between social media use and a host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety , eating disorders and even loneliness. [1]

I want to focus the rest of the article on two key repercussions that social media and other digital technologies have had in our culture. That is, they have altered our communication and interactions with others, and have made it more difficult to unplug and seek solitude.

 Substituting for Face to Face Interactions

While social media may increase the quantity of our social interactions it is an inadequate substitute for the cognitive benefits of face to face interactions. Conversing online does not allow us to assess the feedback or visual cues of the individual(s) we are engaging in conversation with.  As Adam Atler argues in his book Irresistible, we fail to learn how to empathize with others because our conversations online do not enable us to watch how our actions affect other people. It is far easier to send a mean and spiteful comment online than it is to relay that same message to a person face to face. This is because the social and emotional consequences are not the same.

Furthermore, on a neurological level, online interactions do not generate the same degree of social connection. As Dr. Anna Machin notes during a typical social interaction,

Oxytocin lowers inhibitions and gives you the confidence to form new relationships by ‘quieting the fear centre of the brain’. Dopamine is released in conjunction with this, giving you a rush of pleasure – rewarding you for making these new relationships. Beta endorphins are also released, which feel good, but as a natural opiate can also lead to withdrawal symptoms when you don’t get enough, encouraging you to stick together.

You may see social media as a subsidy towards or even a replacement to socialising, but if it is, nobody has told your brain. ‘If you get loads of Instagram likes, you get a nice dopamine hit, but with things like beta endorphin and oxytocin you don’t get anything at all’

Solitude

Almost all of ancient philosophical, spiritual and religious practices emphasize the significance of cultivating solitude and stillness. These traditions embed the discipline of stillness as a key concept in their belief systems. As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness is the Key

The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an ‘evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.’ The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas……. It’s all but impossible to find a philosophical school or religion that does not venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to elite performance and a happy life

No other author popularized the benefits and significance of solitude than the 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. Famous for his book Walden, Thoreau secluded himself in the woods for over two years to realize the benefits of living a minimalist lifestyle free from the noise and day to day toil common in urban cities. In Walden Thoureau writes about his reverence for stillness,

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

The fast-paced nature of digital technologies hinders our ability to attain solitude and stillness. The notifications we receive on our devices make it seem that we must respond to everything instantly. This gives us no time to seriously reflect on our thoughts or actions, and put things into perspective. We simply do not have an opportunity to recharge.

How can we possibly think clearly when our brains are constantly stimulated?

A Way Forward

We need not remove social media or digital technologies from our lives, but rather assess how these technologies help us achieve our goals and support our values. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism helps us chart a path forward.  He recommends that we consider three central questions before using an existing or new technology:

Question 1: Does this tech support something I deeply value?

Question 2: Is this the best way to support this thing I value?

Question 3: How do I use this tech to maximize the benefit and minimize the harms?

While seemingly benign, technology companies undertake in vast amounts of research and invest millions of dollars to get you to spend more and more time on these applications. Cal Newport’s approach enables us utilize technology as a tool, and to not get hooked on its addictive qualities. He recommends that we limit time on our devices to engage in deeper and more authentic social interactions.

 Although at times the world may seem frantic, we all must learn how to limit our inputs, more effectively filter out information that does not serve us and regain connection to the beauty and awe of the world around us. Through solitude and contemplation, we can rid ourselves of the constant noise and chaos of the modern world and distance ourselves from our internal cognitive biases. Through this practice, we can better understand ourselves.

Till next time,

AA


[1] It is important to note that evidence is still forthcoming and it would be an over simplification to insinuate that there is a direct casual link between social media use and mental health issues.

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