“I really like that couch… except for all the blood on it.”
Recently, I binge watched a lot of Nordic noir. These dark, disturbing dramas bring together serial killers, searing violence and sophisticated interior design. Witnessing grizzly scenes of murder is confronting (even in the context of nice furniture) and while I tried my hardest not to be affected, there were moments where I had to mute the sound and turn away. Often, after indulging in another Nordic noir binge session I would go to bed feeling quite tense (and sadly disappointed by my old, lumpy sofa).
What we choose to expose ourselves to has an effect on us. Unsurprisingly, watching hours of intense, violent thrillers left me feeling quite different to how I might have felt had I instead chosen to watch a comedy, have a conversation or go for a walk in the park.
After an intense, stressful day at work, flicking on a TV or picking up another connected device can seem like harmless escapism. However, before you flick that ‘on’ button, it’s helpful to consider “where are you escaping to?”
Since the information age arrived, we’re spending less and less time in the here and now. Instead of being mindful, we’re often using our devices as a neat avoidance strategy. Instead of connecting with the present moment, we’re connecting with another whole wide world of things which leave us feeling stressed, angry, disappointed or somehow not good enough.
Media companies survive on click-through. So that you will press their buttons, they have worked out precisely what presses yours. Get online and you are now instantly met with a newsfeed of sensational stories which can really get to you. Anger and outrage is just a click away.
Recently, I went online and immediately became incredulous that a politician I didn’t like had let another idiotic statement fall from his big, stupid mouth. I became incensed that the government had committed billions to buying surveillance drones, yet somehow still couldn’t afford to solve homelessness. I became saddened that the last rhino is slowly dying of loneliness.
In the space of three minutes, I had gone from pleasantly enjoying a biscuit to being dismayed and disgusted.
At this point many people would go on social media. There they would try to make themselves feel better by looking at memes which mock that stupid politician. Maybe they would sign a petition urging the government to at least let the homeless share hanger space with the drone. Or perhaps they would consider putting some money towards a crowd-funding effort to build the last rhino an animatronic friend.
Of course, on social media it is easy to get side-tracked. Suddenly, they might realise some long-ago ex has a new partner who is younger, better looking and drives a fancier car. Another friend is probably in Tahiti, showing off his washboard stomach and someone else is no doubt in Africa being impossibly saintly whilst performing aid work.
Rather than get into any of this harmful social comparison, I decided to avoid all social media and watch Grand Designs. Straight away I began comparing myself to these people who are the same age, yet somehow can afford to build a miraculous floating dream home. While I am not really that into the architecture on the show, I do like the really awkward bit at the end where they ask the people how much over budget they went. It makes me feel slightly better, knowing I am far less in debt than the fancy homeowners I am comparing myself to.
With my appetite for easy electronic entertainment still nowhere near sated, I jumped on Netflix and spent 20 minutes scanning through thousands of different shows, desperately trying to find something to watch. I’d seen all the stuff that seemed half-decent, so eventually I decided upon a Nicholas Cage movie. For the next two hours I witnessed people getting shot, things blowing up and Nicholas Cage attempting to act, but instead just looking slightly pained/confused.
A little self-examination revealed my post-work chillout session hadn’t really had the desired effect. I was now annoyed at the world, disappointed I didn’t own a floating dream home and was also really tired, because I stayed up watching a terrible Nicholas Cage movie.
I had a slow, sleepy epiphany that this kind of media consumption just wasn’t good for me.
If we are what we eat, I really didn’t want my media diet to turn me into a disturbing Nordic noir/Grand Designs/Nicholas Cage fusion. I began to realise that the occasional media fast is healthy for me and as tempting as it is to gorge on all those digital goodies, I should probably think a little more carefully about what else I could be doing.
So, the next day, after far too much combined TV/laptop time, I decided to get up from my lumpy couch and go for a walk down to the beach. Once there, I stood peacefully, smelling the salt in the air, feeling the waves lapping at my feet and enjoying a few warming rays from the winter sun. You’d have been impressed at just how über-mindful I was…
Suddenly, I noticed some splashing amongst the waves and realised there was a pod of dolphins swimming right past. This was exciting! It was far more exciting than doing accounts on my laptop whilst watching some politician tactfully avoid answering direct questions on the TV news! It was like watching a live version of Flipper!
I followed the dolphins along the beach, singing the Flipper theme song in my head. As I passed each person who was sitting on the beach I called out to them, letting them know about the dolphins. The strange thing was, absolutely no one else on the beach had seen the dolphins, because instead of looking out to sea every one of them was looking down at their phones. It turns out that it is wasn’t just me who was completely media addicted and far too invested in what’s on screen!
The internet is undoubtedly remarkable and our shiny devices hold all sorts of tempting distractions… but if we wish to experience true connection, it is worth occasionally tearing our eyes away from our highly addictive, high definition screens. So stop, smell the roses, watch the dolphins, talk face to face with another human. There’s true wonder all around us and if we manage to truly connect with it, it can do wonders for our minds.
7 tips for being mindful in the information age.