Internet, the Loss of Time, and Happiness

Mother and child in a field, smiling, Taking Time and Finding Happiness - by Wesley Tingey from Unsplash

Before the Internet

One hot August day, before the internet, before cell phones, even before land lines you didn’t have to plug into the wall, my husband and I, along with our two young boys, moved from New Hampshire back to Oregon. David drove the U-Haul; I drove the car with the children. Taking advantage of a downhill slope, David careened ahead of me, when I suddenly noticed steam sweeping up from beneath the hood of our car. Resigned, I pulled over to the side of the highway. David kept on driving, oblivious to our predicament.

For a moment, I sat wondering what to do. I certainly didn’t want to drag two youngsters along the highway until I could find help. Besides, out in the country, we might walk a long way. With a sigh, I got out of the car and propped open the hood. The engine had overheated.

With nothing to do but wait, I got out some water and snacks for the children and settled down to entertain them with stories until either my husband figured out what was going on and came back for us or someone stopped to help.

Mother and child in a field, smiling, Taking Time and Finding Happiness - by Wesley Tingey from Unsplash

As God or fate would have it, a police officer soon stopped and checked on us. When I told him what had happened, he explained that if I drove with the heat on and babied the motor, the car would probably be all right until we reached Oregon and I could take it to a mechanic. In the meantime, he would catch up with my husband and give him an update. With sirens blaring, he took off after the U-Haul.

I imagine my husband’s heart pounded a little when he saw the sirens were meant for him, but we were both grateful to the officer who went out of his way to help us reconnect. Driving with the heat on was miserable, but it worked. The car made it safely all the way home.

Easier, but Lonelier

Had my husband and I had cell phones, getting separated like that wouldn’t have been a problem. I would have called him, had him turn around, then using my 4G service, would have gone online to figure out what to do about the car. We wouldn’t have needed the support of strangers. Yet when we no longer need help, we miss out on the human connection that made that experience so special.

Of course, not every such story has a happy ending. Sometimes no one stops. Sometimes the one who stops would rather take advantage of a vulnerable traveler than offer service. So having a cell phone not only makes life easier, it makes life safer.

That would be great if we didn’t get caught up tweeting, texting, scrolling, and surfing. Instead of focusing on the one we’re with, we carry on silent conversations with ones who live miles away. Rather than watching the sun set, we watch videos. Having given up strolling through the neighborhood, we now scroll through Facebook. Though they connect us in some ways, cell phones and the internet also disconnect us, from others and from ourselves.

The Challenge of Waiting

This may have something to do with the way the internet has increased the speed of our lives. If we want to know something, instead of waiting until the library opens to do some research, we immediately ask Siri to find it for us. Then, when we find some [hopeful] website, we skim rather than read. Instead of attending lectures and reading columns that explore topics in depth, we prefer to get the gist from a 500-word blog. We flit, and this has changed the way we think.

I don’t know what this means for the long term, but I do believe we have become less patient, less willing to listen silently to the halting confessions of a friend or to the spirit within our own heart. Instead, we interrupt, fill our minds with babble, and crave stimulation. It’s as if we have so many important things to do, we can’t wait or slow down or be still and reflect. Time no longer unfolds; it tumbles, turns, and trips, and we can’t keep up.

As we run ever faster, time seeps away from us. We insist on immediate gratification, seeking pleasure, information, friendships, and we have forgotten how to wait. When do we ponder, wonder, pray, let go? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we’re standing on line, we meditate. Put your phone away, and be still.

True Happiness

We humans have always sought happiness in drugs, sex, funny stories, gambling, hobbies, travel, and other distractions. Some of these diversions are harmless, some may promote personal and spiritual growth, but when our goal is feeling good, we usually end up hurting ourselves instead. The internet is no different. A mesmerizing distraction, electronic media can lull us into mindlessness and trap us in inaction. In such a case, happiness is not found there.

True happiness doesn’t come from fleeting pleasures, anyway. There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a good joke, chatting with friends, or watching cute kitten videos, playing Warcraft, posting photos of our camping trip, or losing ourselves in virtual mountain climbing, yet these pastimes not only can become addictive, they don’t bring us lasting happiness.

Research on happiness reveals that when we try to be happy, whether by pursuing fun activities, laughing at jokes, or seeking a thrill, we might feel better in the short run, but we’re not likely to feel better long term. Addictions work that way, as well. Though smoking cigarettes, gambling, and eating cake may make us feel good in the moment, in the long run, they make us feel worse.

If we want to feel content and joyful, we will do better to seek not happiness, but a sense of meaning in our lives. When we strive to make a difference in the world, we sometimes feel frustrated or sad at the moment, because it’s not always easy to pursue visions. Yet over time, we will actually be happier.

Time and Happiness

The internet may make us happy in the moment. It might give us something to do when we feel bored or lonely. We probably enjoy learning new information and sharing insights with friends, and with cell phones, we feel more connected and secure.

None of this is bad, yet it doesn’t make us happy. It doesn’t bring us peace, patience, nor joy that lasts. For that, we need time: time to savor, to reflect, to wonder, to dream, and to wait. In the world of electronic media, time is hard to come by.

When my children and I were forced to stop by the side of the road, we were also forced to interact. We didn’t have phones to distract us. We had food, stories, and the hills and the sky. In that moment, nothing was wrong. We had companionship, food, stillness, and we had time. What more did we need?

How often do you sit in silence, away from distractions, inviting sacred connections with your inner being and with God? I know I don’t do it often enough. While the internet is a great tool, one I wouldn’t want to give up, it can be just another demand, a time sink that may seem to relax us and make us happy, while in reality, it leaves us stressed, empty, and bored. If we seek happiness, if we seek recovery, we will do better if we make time to wait, to be still, to create meaning from our lives, to give from our hearts, and to lovingly touch the hearts of those around us.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Photo credit: by Wesley Tingey from Unsplash