Is 2023 the year you'll lose weight, stop drinking, exercise more or pay off your debts? Will it be the year you begin to feel happier and more content? Or will you blame a lack of time, focus or discipline for not making and keeping a resolution? What would happen if instead of setting huge goals we inquired into the state of our attention? What if we
tried to reclaim our minds, for a even few minutes each day, from the abyss of the digital world?
Most of us know that scrolling through social media, shopping sites, "news" sites, fan sites and worse, lead us into an emptiness and craving that can feel a lot like addiction. The mildest sites merely numb us. The most nefarious ones stir envy, fear, ignorance, antipathy, greed, lust, and hatred. Why do we tune into this stuff? I suggest it is because of proximity and intensity. The work we do and our social networks may require us to be online but they put us a few clicks away from our "favorite" sites, the ones that feed us hot, emotional information they want us to consume. " Just taking a break" can lead us to squander our precious attention, focus and well-being taking in information that has nothing to do with what really matters to us. To choose wisely we have to be willing to reject the empty, addicting inputs even when they beckon to us with banners, ads and notifications. They become like the urge to spend money or eat a sugary snack. They attract us with a siren song but quickly become unpleasant and harmful. And because they are just a few clicks away we fall prey more easily.
This isn't because we are bad, weak people. Simply put, we are putty in the hands of the manipulators of the digital world. We underestimate the time, money and expertise corporate and political actors have poured into grabbing us by the amygdala and selling us stuff: ideas and attitudes, meaning and identity, as well as the glamorous-seeming stuff they are purveying. We are tethered and by forces more powerful than we realize. The dealers have crept into the crevices of our digital world from which they beckon to us (notifications on or off?). And some of us even think we enjoy it. But do we really?
What do I mean by reclaiming the mind? I mean choosing to place my attention in places that nurture rather than manipulate me, that are in line with my goals and values. When I reclaim my mind I will also notice how certain inputs make me feel when I'm consuming them. Thus, I can choose the inputs that create a more peaceful state of mind such as a good book, blog or podcast, or I can walk away from inputs altogether to be with myself, spend time in nature, or to take a brief rest. Reclaiming the mind can set the stage for improving physical and mental health behaviors and increasing happiness.
I propose that this year all of us consider limiting how much attention we devote to random surfing, doom scrolling, and sites such as facebook, instagram, twitter and TikTok. Thwart the hucksters and marketers, the manipulators and the algorithms by withdrawing some clicks. Subscribe to a poem a day, or an inspiring blog and take time to read them instead. Or better yet, put down the screen and go outside. Look at the sky and do nothing. When you hunger for input resolve to choose the inputs that nurture you, as least once per day, and watch your spaciousness of mind increase. This behavioral change will require conscious choice, like not having that second drink. But it might be just the thing that lets you keep your resolve and become a little happier this year.