Brace yourself for a strikingly-simple, yet brilliant idea. It’s super easy, and it’s something each of us can do, today. It will make us happier people, and it will make the United States an even better place to live than it is now. Ready?
Here it is: For every minute (or hour, or day) you spend online reading about, fretting over and commenting on political or cultural issues, spend an equal amount of time offline doing something productive for your community (and, by extension, for yourself).
This is not about politics. This is about your health. This is about humanity.
Spending excessive amounts of time doing things online is not only unproductive; it is counter-productive to living a happy, balanced life. It always seems to start with sharing one interesting article, liking one short video or making one quick comment. Yet, somehow, it often spirals downward into a frustrating, angst-inducing abyss.
Don’t take my word for it. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently conducted a study on how social media habits affect the moods of users. The research revealed that the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. A similar study by the University of Illinois also found that extensive engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression. Taking a different approach, researchers in China examined thousands of social media posts to see which emotions go viral the fastest. Happiness, disgust, pride, sadness? Nope. They found it is anger that spreads faster and more broadly than any other emotion, like online wildfire, consuming everything in its path.
Anger, anxiety and depression. That’s fun stuff, right?
Knowing this, doesn’t it make sense to step away from the online world for a while? Do it not simply to add more physical action to your life, but to add more physical interaction. It can help ground you in the here and now, distance you from the anger spreading online, reduce your anxiety about tomorrow, and maybe even inspire positive changes in the people and world around you.
Before you argue this isn’t as simple as it sounds, I guarantee you it is. I also guarantee it works wonders. I do this. I know other people who do this. It may not always be easy, but it is simple. It is also much more satisfying than staring bleary-eyed at a Smartphone or other screen, more productive than blocking traffic and shouting angry words, more fruitful than sitting around wondering why other people don’t change their ways.
Sherry Turkle’s New York Times best-seller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, focuses on the importance of conversation in digital cultures. She directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self, and has spent the past 30 years researching the psychology of technology. Her research raises critical questions about people’s relationships with technology, as well as technology’s role in productivity, including whether our always-connected state affects our ability to think, be creative and innovate.
Her book description states: “The case for conversation begins with the necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection. They are endangered: these days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning, and productivity.”
“My argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation,” said Turkle, who has been described as a skeptic who was once a believer. “We miss out on necessary conversations when we divide our attention between the people we’re with and the world on our screens.”
Thankfully, there is also good news according to Turkle: we are resilient, and conversation cures.
So here are some ideas to help you get offline and get into a conversation (and maybe even get some fresh air and exercise while you’re at it):
- Play a game of cards with folks at a senior center.
- Mow a neighbor’s overgrown lawn.
- Teach someone to read and write.
- Babysit for young parents who rarely get a break.
- Organize a weekly soccer game (or basketball, or tag football, or cricket, or volleyball, or… you get the idea) for friends/neighbors at your local park.
- Volunteer at the USO; chat with the people who defend and protect freedom.
- Mentor a child through Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouting, 4-H or the foster care program.
- Share your skill or trade with someone who is eager to learn.
- Walk or ride your bike on short errands, instead of driving.
- Pick up trash from the street or a public park.
- Wash dogs and clean kennels or litter boxes at an animal shelter.
- Read a book to someone undergoing chemotherapy or to a child in the hospital.
- Cook a meal and deliver it to someone who could use the help but would never ask for it.
- Join a volunteer work crew to help clean up a wilderness area.
- [insert action word here] for [insert name of someone else here]. [repeat]
If you have other ideas, or would like to share some things you have done to improve your community and your own mental well-being, please sound off in the comments.
(Photos provided by Petsmart Charities, Boy Scout Troop 30 – Phoenix, Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, and Feed My Starving Children)