Reclaiming Happiness in the Digital Age

“Where are you in the world?”

I grew up hearing the principal of my elementary school constantly remind us that the most important thing in life we needed to know was the answer to that question. Rabbi Dr. Armin Friedman was a premier principal who, through his vast life experience and expert Torah educational expertise, drilled the many generations of his students at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) in New York to be aware of where we were in the present and to live it fully. Over forty years later, I still remind my children and congregants how important it is to ask themselves that question and, even more significantly, to have the answer to it.

How different a world forty years makes! Today, terrific technological advancements allow us to consult with experts face to face anywhere in the world. I can joke with a colleague in Australia for whom it is already the next day about what I can expect in the “near future.” My children in New Jersey share quality FaceTime with their grandparents in Ohio or Yerushalayim and an active WhatsApp “cousins chat” spanning four states and two countries. With a tap on a cell phone app, I can quickly be transported back in time and listen to the shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz or Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky or the derashot of Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, zichronam l’vrachah, as if I were sitting in the beit midrash with them. Could Rabbi Friedman’s message still be relevant today when, thanks to technology, time and place seem irrelevant?

With all of the possibilities of when and where to be in the world, one would assume everything would be great. Yet, it is shocking to discover that our kids are actually more anxious and less happy, and they are generally experiencing less psychological well-being than in the past. A study of over 1.1 million adolescents in the United States discovered that this decrease is positively correlated to overall time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, texting, gaming). In addition, the years during which subjects spent more time on electronic communication were also the years they found themselves most unhappy. This study’s findings apply to both the group as a whole and to each individual as well.1

But how exactly does this happen? What is it about technology that allows it to wreak chaos on our mental states?

 

FOMO

One answer is FOMO, which stands for “fear of missing out.” FOMO, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English, is “the uneasiness and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you are missing out—that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of, something better than you.” FOMO is often the reason that some text while driving, because the possibility of a social connection is more important than one’s own life. It is the reason people check their Twitter streams during a date or an important meeting and mindlessly check WhatsApp during chazarat hashatz—we worry that if we do not respond right away, we may miss an opportunity to connect to something more interesting or entertaining.

The FOMO effect on teens and young adults in particular is scary. The pressure to stay up late into the night in bed monitoring a myriad of social media connections, or the urge to check them first thing in the morning, certainly contributes to the toll FOMO and social media in general are taking on our kids. Teens tend to believe that they need to be available 24/6 (and sadly, sometimes 24/7) to their friends. That “always on” culture has created unreasonable expectations in our younger generation such that their attention, time and mental energy must be constantly attuned to digital communication. This trend is creeping quickly into the standard culture of adulthood as well. Today there is almost a presumption that rapid responses to e-mails, texts and posts are a customary norm in the workplace and adult society in general too.2 In fact, studies seem to suggest that the average adult spends up to five hours a day on a computer or smartphone connecting through social activities. That is a full seventy-six days of the year! Teens can spend even more time online.

FOMO is often the reason that some text while driving, because the possibility of a social connection is more important than one’s own life.

However, do not confuse rapid with qualitative when evaluating these responses. The studies show that the mere presence of a smartphone reduces one’s cognitive capacity3 and makes the quality of the work produced inferior. After all, with the global community as accessible as it is, when is one supposed to get downtime to rest, recharge and contemplate one’s own perspective of the world around him?

Not only does FOMO distort where we are in the world, devaluing it and making it a pressured environment, FOMO also distorts everyone else’s experiences and where they are as well. Our relationships with our social media “connections,” “links” and “friends” are distorted by the fake persona they present. Generally, people tend to post the moments of their lives that are positive, exciting, and glamorous, and anything else others will like. In other words, the social media world is one that contains only the cherry-picked perfect aspects of people living their best. After all, who wants to read depressing status updates? But if that is the case, then the social media relationship we think we share is not real but idealized, with the occasional misery sprinkled in to create the impression that we are “keeping it real.” Social media feeds into our own feelings of insecurity, regret and ambivalence about ourselves in comparison to others who, frankly, do not exist. What kind of relationship is that?

Another danger that FOMO raises in the minds of psychologists and digital media experts is its propensity toward addictive behavior. The makers of social network technologies are benefiting from our impulse control problem—our inability to control the impulse to check our networks. The more one checks Facebook, the more Facebook gets to show you more ads and make more money. One might even suggest that social media networks seize on our FOMO, as they use psychological tricks for us to develop a craving for the instantaneous highs that come from “likes” and comments.4, 5 In fact, responding to dings, banners and other notification alerts have been shown to be very similar to the effects of casino slot machines.6 It is no surprise that neuroimaging studies have shown that Internet addiction shows similar increases in activity in brain regions associated with substance-related addictions.7

As a society, this trend is incredibly alarming. The striking similarity between FOMO and addiction includes the distorted perception of reality in both conditions. In the same way that the alcoholic loses his perception of reality as he becomes more dependent on alcohol, the individual with FOMO becomes oblivious to the reality around himself. He leaves the real world and becomes dependent on one that only exists in cyberspace, where the commodities of value are thumbs-up and likes and positive comments from friends who feed our addictive craving for social connection but cannot do so fast enough. Thus, in order to stave off the crushing distress from the craving for more social recognition, the individual spends more and more time on social media networks, losing not only who he is but also a sense of which world is reality.

What is it about technology that allows it to wreak chaos on our mental states?

Some have argued that as with addiction, total abstinence is the only solution. However, it is hard to dismiss the conveniences of the communication, organization, information retrieval and productivity advancements that we benefit from because of the ease of smartphone and social media networking. Business,8 industry, education and health care all credit the role these technological advances play.9,10 Their existence and use is considered “progress” and “socially acceptable.” Thus, it becomes important for us to be able to deal with the negative effects associated with these technological advancements, while still being able to benefit from them. The question is how.

 

A Potential Solution: The Hillel Approach

The Gemara (Sukkah 53a) quotes the great Tanna Hillel, who offers a timeless piece of advice for combating FOMO in particular and resetting life goals in general:

. . . It is said about Hillel the Elder that when he was celebrating at the Simchat Beit Hashoevah he used to declare: “If I am here, everything is here. If I am not here, who is here?” He would also say, “to the place that I love, that is where my feet will take me. . . .”

In many ways, Hillel’s riddle provides a great framework for overcoming FOMO.

 

Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky (Notes to Sanhedrin 106) explains that the “I” of a person is his own personal ideas and opinions. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Olat Re’iyah) adds that the definition of an “I” (the “Ani”) refers to the unique living spirit that exists within each person. When attempting to combat the effects of FOMO, one needs to recognize the most important tool he has in his arsenal—himself. By being true to oneself and one’s own sense of what is important, one will be able to distinguish the things that do not deepen the quality of his life experience and will be more willing to say “no” to those things. One can then focus on that which enhances the quality, rather than the quantity, of life’s experiences.

Rabbi Kook adds that the “I” of a person grows spiritually as it fills with a sense of hakarat hatov (gratitude). Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can be a positive weapon in counteracting the effects of FOMO and the pursuit of false fantasies. Studies show that gratitude predicts a higher GPA in students, higher life satisfaction, better social integration and lower rates of depression and envy. Cultivating gratitude allows us to appreciate what we have instead of focusing on what we don’t. Gratitude helps us count the berachot we receive from Hashem right now, where we are in the world. On a practical level, it is beneficial to have a gratitude exercise. Take a berachot challenge to see if you are aware of 100 different berachot you recite each day. During meals—especially those on Shabbat, families can have everyone go around and list something they’re thankful for. This simple practice has been known to have a major effect on overall life satisfaction.

 

Rather than chasing after an illusion of happiness, we can strive for the deep satisfaction that comes along with the cultivation of mindfulness—the practice of being present in our lives. Savor the moment rather than rush forward to the next thrill. Really smell the coffee (or the roses) and appreciate the aroma. Take a simple activity from time to time, like eating a watermelon, and enjoy each bite by using the different senses of sight, smell, taste and touch to practice appreciating the sensory delights in our daily lives. This process helps us stay present in our world together, rather than alone in the world of “what would have been.” When we become accustomed to heightened senses, our brains become too busy to be thinking about what others are doing on Facebook.

 

Do you ever get the feeling that your leg is vibrating with a smartphone notification reminder even though it is Shabbat and the vibration is a phantom feeling? Did you know that there is even a term for the fear of being without your cell phone? (It is called nomophobia, by the way.) Both situations are distracting and keep us from being attentive to our life activities. Our happiness is determined by how we choose to allocate our attention; being able to limit the times we are on the Internet will help keep us engaged with those whom we are with right now.

Lest you think this will make you unsuccessful, know that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two of the people most famously associated with technological advancement, raised their children with serious limits on their Internet, social media and gaming access. Both recognized that their children needed to be fully present if they were going to be able to be successful. In fact, Jobs noted the value of being fully present in productivity in general: “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

Our kids learn from what they see, and when they see us constantly checking our e-mails and Instagram, they learn to do the same. Carving out times and places that are “no-phone zones” helps create a culture where our families learn that face-to-face interactions are more valuable than the goings-on of others. A dinner or breakfast table that is Internet-free is one where parents and children can interact and grow together.

And if we can use tech-free zones to overcome distractions at home, imagine the positive effect such zones can have in a place where focus is especially challenging—in shul. As Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’atra of Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, noted: “It is no secret that we all struggle with kavanah in davening. The last thing we need is a tool that is designed to distract us [from being] present and active during davening, time during which we are supposed to focus on our relationship with God. Yet, too often, the mere presence of the phone has enticed holders to check their e-mails, respond to texts, read the paper or even [I was once told] play Scrabble during pesukei d’zimra, chazarat hashatz and other times during davening. It is as much a desecration of the shul as it is a squandering of the precious time we have to stand before God in prayer.” Rabbi Pruzansky and his shul took the courageous step of banning cell phones from the sanctuaries and encouraging people to leave them outside of the shul during davening. The effects, at least so far, have proved encouraging. After all, where is it more important to be aware of where you are in the world than when you are standing in front of Hashem?

 

It is generally understood that quality relationships trump the quantity of what we own or experience. It is reported that in today’s digitally connected world, we have created students and adults who are lonely in crowds and have trouble relating to one another in person because they have replaced authentic relationships with virtual friendships. Pirkei Avot (1:6) reminds us that acquiring a friend is an investment that begins with us first. Investing time and energy in relationships and working on the skills that they require may be one of the best antidotes to the loneliness that is FOMO. Make time in your schedule to undertake regular spiritual and social-building activities. You cannot imagine the benefits of a regular shiur, chavruta or Torah mate, and the personal good born from a joint social chesed activity. The social effects alone will take you far.

 

There are always going to be opportunities to create experiences that are life-enhancing. The Netziv (Harchev Davar, Shemot 5:3) notes that it is incumbent upon us to take these opportunities and use them as a means to connect to Hashem. This is achieved, he explains, by having the ability to be fully present in our experiences with mind, body and soul. For it is the experience of full immersion in one of these life opportunities—the feeling of accomplishment, connection, fun, self-respect or freedom—instead of merely checking off that one has “been there” or “got that” object or attainment, that helps us distinguish what we find fulfilling from that which yields only a temporary feeling of pleasure. Remember the first paycheck you ever worked for? That money was much more satisfying to you than had the same amount been handed to you as a gift. You can probably remember how you enjoyed spending it. Having the ability to be present in the joy of an experience makes each moment count, and refocuses an individual to where he loves to be.

Moreover, when working on savoring one’s experiences, it is important to avoid multitasking. When people try to apply themselves to too many activities at once, they are not usually successful. When they focus on a single task, especially one of their choosing, not only are they more likely to produce a better result but their level of satisfaction is higher.

A timeless Torah speaks not only in the past, but remains relevant to solving the challenges of the present and the future. Considering and knowing where we are in the world and where we want and love to go will help us overcome technological challenges, transforming new technology into better opportunity.

Notes

1. J. Twenge, G. Martin and K. Campbell, “Decreases in Psychological Well-Being among American Adolescents after 2012 and Links to Screen Time during the Rise of Smartphone Technology,” Emotion 18, no. 6 (2018), 765-780.

2. S.Turkle, “Always-On/Always-On-You: The Tethered Self” in Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies, ed. J. E. Katz (Cambridge [Massachusetts], 2008), 121-137.

3. A. F. Ward, K. Duke, A. Gneezy and M. W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (2017), 140-154.

4. A. Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York, 2017).

5. P. Lewis, “Our Minds Can be Hijacked: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia,” The Guardian [weekend edition] (7 October 2017), 24, www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia.

6. J. M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic (September 2017), www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/.

7. D. J. Kuss and M. D. Griffiths, “Internet and Gaming Addiction: A Systematic Literature Review of Neuroimaging Studies,” Brain Science 2, no. 3 (2012), 347.

8. C. C. Cheston, T. E. Flickinger and M. S. Chisolm, “Social Media Use in Medical Education: A Systematic Review,” Academic Medicine 88, no. 6 (2013), 893-901.

9. J. Gikas and M. M. Grant, “Mobile Computing Devices in Higher Education: Student Perspectives on Learning with Cellphones, Smartphones & Social Media,” The Internet in Higher Education 19 (2013), 18-26.

10. F.J. Grajales III, S. Sheps, K. Ho, H. Novak-Lauscher and G. Eysenbach, “Social Media: A Review and Tutorial of Applications in Medicine and Health Care,” Journal of Medical Internet Research 16, no. 2 (2014), e13.

Rabbi Jonathan Schwartz, PsyD, is the rav of Congregation Adath Israel of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth/Hillside, New Jersey, and the clinical director of the Center for Anxiety Relief in Union, New Jersey, where he specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD. He has lectured extensively, especially in the areas of the intersection of Judaism, psychology and mental health.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2019.