In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to focus on the now.We struggle to settle down, appreciate the present, and even fail to give our attention to the people we spend time with. But what are the consequences and how can we get better at mindful living? Dr. Nancy Darling is a Psychology professor at Oberlin College and has spent 25 years studying social relationships in young people. I turned to her for answers on the multitasking versus mindfulness problem.
You talk about people chasing happiness and failing to see what’s in front of them. Do most people spend too much time focusing on the future?
No. I think they just get distracted by different parts of the now.
Do you think millennials are a generation of multitaskers? How has multitasking affected our ability to feel appreciation?
I think humans are a species of multitaskers. What has changed for all of us – and millenials probably most of all – is how we multitask. We have inexhaustible access to information and potential distractions. But we – culturally and individually – haven’t learned yet how to access that information judiciously. I read a quote a few months ago about the election that said that reporters’ jobs used to be about providing access to information no one else had. Now there is so much information, the job of the best reporters is to curate information to help us separate out what is worth highlighting and paying attention to.
The parents and grandparents of millennials grew up multitasking too – but it was radio and television, newspapers! Raising kids while trying to keep a house and chat with your friends is multitasking. What makes multitasking different now is the characteristics of those distractions: screens connected to the internet.
Screens are a sensory desert. You get words and visual images, but there’s no smell, no taste, the sound and even movement is pretty limited. So they titillate but don’t satisfy us. We’re always looking for more.
We’re set up to look for novelty. Watching grass grow is not that exciting. We pay attention to the swish in the grass that tells us there’s a snake. We look to Twitter and Facebook and clickbait like gamblers pulling the lever on a slot machine, hoping to see something that makes us say ‘wow’.
We are constantly thinking about an audience. I think this is so, so important. I go on a walk and see a lovely flower and instead of looking at it and moving on, I pull out my phone, snap a picture of it, and post it on Instagram because my focus is on what my friends and followers will think about the thing I just saw. I am seeing it through their eyes, not through my own. Everything is once removed.
In what ways do our social interactions suffer when we get distracted?
It’s really annoying talking to someone who is playing with their phone. When we do it the people we’re with feel the same way. If you’re not interested enough in the conversation you’re in to pay attention to it, maybe you should develop better conversational skills. It takes practice. Is the person you’re texting really that much more interesting?
On the other hand, looking at a screen together is a shared experience that can be a great bonding experience. We want to share things with people we care about.
How does not living in the moment affect our mental health? Does it have any impact on physical health as well?
Psychologically, I know for myself, when I have been in very dark places it is noticing the small details of my life that let me hold on. Noticing that coffee still smells good. Feeling the press of a button on my fingers and hearing the ding of an elevator as the door opens. It takes me out of my head, which can be a good thing. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure and is one of the major symptoms of depression. We need to foster our ability to enjoy life. It’s like a muscle and gets better with exercise.
On Saturdays I get up, I open my mail and read the paper on my computer. I catch up on work and check all my networks. I blog. By five o’clock I typically have walked fewer than 1000 steps. I’ve gotten up to eat lunch. No, that’s not good for you. Being in the real world requires more movement. It’s even bad for your eyes, because they’re always focusing around two feet away. They don’t get the exercise they need to be able to focus at distance.
I see that you studied family dynamics in different countries. With that experience, would you say that a lack of mindfulness is cultural? Are Americans less appreciative because of our fast-paced lifestyles?
I don’t think it’s that we have a particularly fast paced lifestyle – certainly not compared to other people living in any urban environment. I think people in the US tend to be less focused on building and maintaining social and community ties with the people around them than is true in most other countries. We spend less time with family. We spend less time socializing with friends or joining organizations that do things together. Writing this, I’m wondering if one of the reasons people have been so mobilized the last few months by marches and political organizing is that they’re rediscovering the joy and power of being with people doing things in the real world. Grabbing a sandwich is different than texting.
On the other hand, virtual friendships can be a lifeline to people. We can keep contact with people who have moved and create new communities of people online who truly care about one another.
What can we do to stay in the moment and not give in to distractions?
Pay attention. It’s not more complicated than that. Specifically, pay attention to your senses. The screen world focuses on words and things that tickle our brain. Get into the habit of noticing how your shower feels, how your coffee smells, how cars sound when they shoot through puddles. You don’t have to get all meditative about it – just notice. Five seconds is a long time.
Distractions are harder. It takes discipline to stay on task. I know I have gotten into the habit of switching screens every time I finish something. It started by checking the internet or getting coffee when I finished writing a section. Then it was a paragraph. Now I feel the pull after every completed thought. The key is not to act on that impulse, remember what you’re trying to get done, and turn your mind back to the task. After even a few hours you’ll remember how good it feels to stay focused. The temptation to look away gets less. You get into that state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ where you’re in that great space where you’re completely into what you’re doing. You don’t get there if you keep checking Twitter.
The takeaway is this: it really is the little things in life that add up. Just taking a moment of our time to consciously notice our surroundings can help keep us present and involved in the real world. When we live in the moment we allow ourselves to live a happier, mentally and physically healthier life.
Darling, N. (2017, June 4). Chasing Hapiness Steals Joy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thinking-about-kids/201706/chasing-happiness-steals-joy