I recently had lunch in one of Moscow's small cafes, one of those where the tables cozily stand just a few inches away from each other. During an hour-long lunch, the couple sitting at a table next to mine didn't say a word. A man and a woman, both approximately my age, wouldn't take their eyes off their iPhones. Not even when the food came, not even when it was time to pay the bill.
They ate on autopilot, web-surfing non-stop, and I not am sure they noticed either the taste of food, or each other's presence much. Their eyes were steadily fixated on the little screens, and the only emotion palpable around that table was annoyance – I guess when the sites didn't open fast enough and the information they'd been looking for wasn't available.
Scenes of this kind probably take place in cafes all over Moscow and elsewhere these days. We're living in an always “on” world, relying on our gadgets more than we rely on living beings.
I also engage in compulsive “it-can't-wait” browsing on my smartphone when I can. I try not to do it during lunch or a dinner date, but otherwise I am quite addicted too. I am keen to check my email in the metro (just out of the office and on the way home!) and to watch the newly released blockbuster through a social media site, not even making an effort to download it.
I've also noticed that in the past few years my attention span has shortened so much that when I pick up a book, a real, not a digital one (which happens less and less often), I scan it rather than reading like I used to when I was younger.
Still, although I've written a bunch of articles on the need for a digital detox, I am not that nostalgic (well, maybe just a tiny bit) for the cell-phone and wifi-free era. How could I be? The gadgets are incredibly handy, they make our life easier, save time, develop creativity and information processing and decision-making skills, and facilitate human interaction and communication in many ways.
But I wonder if we are becoming happier in a reality where immediate gratification of our desires is increasingly possible?
A good portion of neuroscientists surely aren't very happy about this trend. They insist today's gadget-dependents are getting curiously infantile, their minds in some ways regressing to those of five-year-olds, or even worse – to addicts yearning for quick fixes.
British scientist Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford (www.susangreenfield.com), who's studied the impact of modern screen technologies on the human brain for the last two decades and written a few books on the issue, leads this skeptics' camp.
She warns that Internet addiction (already a recognized condition, by the way) alters our minds in an unprecedented way and not necessarily for the better. According to Greenfield, a preference “for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences” and “the sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction.”
“Today’s screen technologies create environments that could alter how we process information, the degree to which we take risks, how we socialize and empathize with others and even, how we view our own identity,” Greenfield writes on her website.
So as our brains might indeed be undergoing this irreversible transformation, do we “Millenials” now need a different kind of stimulus to be inspired or simply feel alive?
Not necessarily so.
While doing some research recently on the notion of happiness for another article, I came across a number of studies proving that we've changed little when it comes to the things making us truly content.
It's not instantly satisfied urges, but the delayed gratification that brings us memorably positive emotions. Research evidence indicates that
Internet shopping is much less rewarding than actually going out to stores, even if it's just window-shopping. Looking forward to stuff is often more pleasurable than getting it right away.
More so, it's not the material acquisitions that a human soul longs for, but human interaction, the more real the better. Hugging in flesh and blood provides a much stronger release of the “happiness hormone” oxytocin than emoticons popping on a computer screen.
And it's the giving, not receiving that gets us elated. Multiple studies prove that random acts of kindness and altruism such as helping strangers give us a lasting happiness boost.
Finally, it's not staring into the iPhone screen that keeps us alive, but getting out there and having our five senses woken. And we don't need sophisticated entertainment to enjoy life. In an experiment led by Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University where the participants had to reconstruct their activities at the end of the day and name the most fulfilling ones, the latter were sex, socializing (in person, not online or on the phone), relaxing, exercising and eating.
Our brains might be changing, but our genuine emotional and physical needs remain the same. Which, it seems to me, is not a bad thing.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.