“Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor,” wrote Hermann Hesse, describing the plight of those drifting through life without any real meaning. A statement that many would use to describe today’s relationship to productivity and social media, it’s revelatory to see that Hesse captured this same concern over a century ago in his 1905 essay on finding happiness.
It’s become the standard excuse of the busy to blame their troubles on social media and the constant distractions the Internet is happy to offer, but the problems we face are neither singular to our time nor any one piece of technology.
More than 60 years before Hesse’s insights, Kierkegaard cautioned us against the evils of busyness in his 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life,
“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”
Indeed, more than two thousand years ago, the great Stoic philosopher Seneca correctly pointed out,
“There is nothing that the busy man is less busy with than living.”
It seems that as long as people have lived and recorded their thoughts for the benefit of future generations, we’ve struggled with the pull of busy versus meaningful. And despite all of our progress, we’re still struggling with this same issue.
Technology is the Symptom, Not the Cause
It’s easy to blame all of this on Facebook and Twitter and every other app that generates revenue off our attention.
And maybe a portion of the blame goes there. There’s no doubt they could behave more responsibly with the authority society has granted them.
But treating social media as the cause of our tendency to drift through life without truly living is to forget that this issue isn’t limited to our time. And it’s to forget that each of these programs respond to our preferences. Each algorithm evolves based on our responses.
The Internet thrives in giving us exactly what we want. It takes our actions and perpetuates them, setting us up to repeat those actions the next time. It’s simply the manifestation of our intentions and the medium by which we act them out. In this way, the Internet, and with it social media, is a symptom, not the cause.
And focusing only on the symptoms denies our own responsibility in this issue. Blaming social media for our struggles perpetuates the excuse that we’re faultless in how we choose to spend our time.
Instead of complaining how the Internet is providing what we’ve set it up to provide, we should consider changing what it is that we want.
Or said another way, if we don’t want to be inundated with clickbait, maybe we should stop clicking on the damn bait.
Just What Do You Want?
Would you rather feel happy or alive?
Ask people and most will say they’d rather feel alive than happy. Try it. They will.
But then watch what they do. And see how they behave. And the choices they actually make show a stark difference from this supposed preference.
We don’t often think about this question. Maybe because we often assume both options are one in the same.
But too often, our quest for future happiness doesn’t lead to feeling alive. More and more, it’s aligned to comfort and convenience.
And the course of history has repeatedly shown that today’s comforts quickly become tomorrow’s obligation. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens,
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”
Our quest for short-term happiness continues to push us into lives of greater convenience. With the irony that it’s often in the struggle that we’re our happiest. It’s in these trials that we find purpose. It’s in these moments that we feel most alive.
So as we go through life looking to maximize the comfort and convenience of each moment, it shouldn’t be a surprise that more and more of our days are filled with completed to-do lists yet void of any real feeling of accomplishment.
And it’s time we all stopped to ask, what do we really want? And do our behaviors reflect that same intention?
Maybe Happiness Isn’t the Answer
If happiness has become synonymous with comfort, perhaps happiness is too broad a term. Happiness covers a great many wonderful experiences, but it also covers those fleeting sensations of instant gratification that social media has become so proficient in providing.
So instead of considering, what will make us happy, what if we asked ourselves, what will bring us joy?
Maybe they’re largely the same word, but to me at least, joy brings a much more vivid picture of a life fully-embraced. When I think of joy, it’s that level of happiness that’s mixed with passion and excitement.
It’s the exact opposite of apathy. Because while we can conceivably acknowledge that time spent scrolling through online comments may offer some level of happiness, few could honestly say it brings them real joy.
In his essay On Little Joys, Hermann Hesse describes joy as “the ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival,” and cautions us that our existing practices look to stifle this feeling,
“But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”
Joy comes from treasuring this exact moment. Joy manifests itself in our willingness to embrace the present and live fully right now. As Henry Miller wisely said in his meditation on the art of living,
“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”
What brings you joy? What makes you feel alive?
And how much of your time is spent focusing on these moments?
Be Joyful. Be Present.
Franz Kafka once told a friend that “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.”
Today’s technologies offer new opportunities for growth, advancement, and connection. And with those come an endless supply of distractions, mindless chatter, and superficial relationships.
How we allow the tools at our disposal to shape our lives is still our responsibility. Just as Seneca, Kierkegaard, and Hesse struggled to live a full life within their cults of busyness, that same battle remains applicable today.
And the solution remains ever the same. Be mindful. Know what you want. And let your actions reflect that desire.
Find what brings you joy. And be present in that moment. If we can do that, the incessant din of busyness distractions can’t compete.