People often ask me how I think human beings are changing as a result of our addiction to technology. The fact is, we are changing in innumerable ways, but perhaps none more profoundly than in our relationship with ourselves—that is, how we experience our own company.
It is paradoxical. On the one hand, those of us who live our lives on social media believe that every cinnamon latte we consume is extraordinary and meaningful to others. We share every thought and feeling, imagining the world as our doting mother, celebrating every itch we scratch. And yet, despite our temporary sense of self-importance, we have lost touch with an internally generated sense of self-worth and meaning.
We determine much of our value by the number of thumbs up we receive on social media. We may not feel important or likable until our friends validate us with public “likes.” And if our Snapchats are left unopened, our self-worth can plummet. We are on an endless roller coaster, riding between feeling that we matter and are valuable, to believing that we are worthless and unlovable—all driven by an external, and often unknown, audience.
In the age of technology, many of us dread being alone. We consider time spent in our own company to be time to kill or to be avoided at all costs. The few moments at the end of the day when all of the devices are finally off and the distractions are gone are often viewed as boring at best and frightening at worst. To be left alone with just ourselves is to be left in a vacuum, with nothing to do and nowhere to be.
These days, when a meaningful moment occurs—perhaps we go out of our way to help a stranger on the street—rather than privately processing the event and reflecting on the experience, too many of us immediately announce our story on social media: “#gratitude” or “kickin’ it with kindness.”
And then we wait for the virtual world to respond, to determine what the experience will mean, and most importantly, to tell us what the event says about who we are—our identity.
At this moment in history, too many of us are trying to outrun ourselves, with the great help of technology and the unending distractions it offers. The goal seems to be to make it to the end of our lives without spending any time with ourselves along the way. What a tragic goal.
We treat technology as if it were our savior. We imagine that somewhere inside its magical, mysterious maze lies the key to our happiness and fruition, a place where we will finally be able to settle down and be present. Somewhere, somehow, our smartphone will deliver peace.
In truth, we cannot experience authentic well-being if we cannot tolerate our own company. We can only distract ourselves for so long before we run out of places to hide and distractions to hide in. When we chase anything external for our sense of completeness and worth, we set ourselves up for certain failure and suffering.
Nothing outside of us can ever complete us, not even technology. Every spiritual, philosophical, and psychological tradition eventually leads us back to ourselves, to the one thing too many of us abandon in the course of our searching. Our true refuge is not in the next best app or an updated rose-gold smartphone. Ultimately, we are the destination we are seeking.
The next time you feel the impulse to check your smartphone or computer to fill an idle moment, ask yourself:
- What would I have to feel right now if I couldn’t use it?
- What am I experiencing right now that I am wanting to get away from?
- What am I really longing for in this moment?
If you still use technology after contemplating these questions, that’s OK, too. What’s important is to start shifting your mindset so that you can experience yourself as a place to be and as someone you want to spend time with. At the end of the day, this relationship with ourselves is the true measure of well-being.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. For more information, visit NancyColier.com.