Is Technology Decreasing Our Happiness?

A few months ago I boarded a plane to Australia, psyched for my speaking tour, but dreading the fourteen hour ride that awaited me. I had planned to finish writing my book on the flight, but the minute I sat down, it became apparent that all I was going to do was procrastinate. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the plane had many distractions available via its entertainment system. Besides the nearly endless supply of on-demand movies and TV shows, it seemed to have every song that had ever been recorded. We were no longer in the “olden-days” of only being able to listen to music on an in-flight radio station. No, on this plane I could go from album to album and select my favorite songs, building a play-list which included only music I loved.

As I was relishing the moment I realized that there was something troubling about this set up. What kind of a world were we creating where, through technology, we could remove all the things we don’t like and skip straight to only that which we wanted? No more commercials, no more having to wait for our less desired TV shows to end so we can get to our favorite ones. No more wondering when the song we loved most would play on the radio – we could just download it on i-Tunes. No more waiting for a library book to be returned – we could just instantly add it to our Kindle. No more asking for directions or even getting lost because every location under the sun is instantly findable on Waze. No more “missing a moment,” because everything can instantly be recorded. No more being unable to locate a product that stops getting sold locally, because nearly everything is obtainable online. No more even having moments of not knowing something because nearly every question and topic can be searched for on Google.

On the holiday of Sukkot, we read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), written by the wisest man in Jewish history – Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) who sums up all the wisdom he learned in his life. Shlomo HaMelech too believed that we should sometimes lack and sometimes have: Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing. A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away. A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

I thought of what Kohelet might look like in 2015, “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to be entertained and a time to be bored. A time to receive and a time to wait. A time to be found and a time to be lost. A time to be connected and a time to be unplugged. A time to know and a time to wonder.”

Why do we read this book of Kohelet during Sukkot? Perhaps because Sukkot is the culmination of waiting, the culmination of lacking after months of anticipating our harvest. But Sukkot is also about zman simchateinu (the time of our happiness). What’s the connection between lacking and happiness? As the famed writer Herman Melville once said, “Truly to enjoy bodily warmth some small part of you must be cold.” It is only because we once didn’t have that we can fully enjoy our moment of bounty.

As our new year begins and our technology continues to advance, likely removing more waiting and giving us more of what we want immediately, perhaps we can, at times, find ways to impose some of our own delays and create opportunities where we can do without, so that we will always be able to achieve zman simchateinu.

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  • Avatar photo Monica says on October 4, 2015

    I agree with you one hundred percent on this– that the culture we have now of “can have it, find it, know it” in a minute, as soon as the thought occurs, is really going to lead to problematic things for us as time goes on. We really do not know how this will impact on people’s personalities and character traits over time, but some of the early signs are not so good I think. I often find that people will label this perspective as “technophobic” or just old fashioned– a version of “these kids today…” I am quite intrigued by your idea at the end of your piece of basically figuring out how to artificially (or maybe planfully is a better word) create opportunities for delay, not knowing, doing without. Interesting post.


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