Blissfully wired: 10 rules for digital happiness

Editor’s Note: Anna Akbari, Ph.D. teaches in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which blends social science and pop culture to take an intelligent look at image-related issues; and Sociology of Style Services (formerly Closet Catharsis).

Story highlights

Professor Anna Akbari bans all forms of technology in her classes

She believes that students are more 'present' once cut off from their phones and laptops

Akbari has come up with a list of ways to achieve digital happiness

It includes creating boundaries, being efficient and 'unplugging' each day

CNN  — 

I’m the Luddite professor: My students are not allowed to use cell phones or laptops in my classes. During the break, they can power up and engage in a text and email frenzy for ten minutes – then it’s time to unplug again. Not all professors are this stringent with technology in the classroom.

And certainly an argument can be made for the value of typing one’s notes or looking up discussion-related topics in realtime. But whatever value those things hold, I believe that being tech-free during that brief period of time is even more precious.

Many students experience tremendous anxiety when they first learn they will not be allowed to be “on call” during my class. They – and their employers, parents, and significant others – are so trained to be in a state of insta-responsiveness, that they often feel the need to alert them that they will be unavailable during that time. (“My mom will worry if I don’t respond right away”; “My boyfriend is going to be pissed when he doesn’t hear back from me”; “My internship might need me!”)

Anna Akbari, NYU Professor.

Day or night, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, they are on high alert for any and all incoming noise-releasing, flashing, vibrating requests for their attention. Every thought is urgent; every datapoint epic.

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So my class is a true anomaly in their lives. Many are anxious and ill at ease at first. Some cradle their phones out of habit, as if to comfort themselves just from the tactile sensation of feeling it against their skin. Many admit to feeling “phantom vibrations” when they’re apart from their phones. (“I’m mentally connected to my phone,” they assure me.) And, inevitably, some students will slip into their bags and pockets and try to check their messages subconsciously, totally unaware of their actions until I call them out.

But after the anxiety dissipates, something foreign happens to them: they become present. They stop multitasking. They stop switching their attention between screens. They listen. They make eye contact. And we go into a collective flow-state. It’s at once stimulating and relaxing.

I tell them we unplug in an effort to honor the sacred space that is the classroom (cue the Millennial eyerolls). I explain that it’s our time to engage in some good, old fashioned conversation. Everything else in the world melts away for those few hours. It’s just us, some dense books, two dozen brains full of knowledge, and the isolated time and space to talk about ideas. What a deliciously thrilling luxury. We are fortunate, I remind them.

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But what happens when we graduate out of the formal classroom? How do we reclaim that “sacred space” and allow ourselves to find flow in an overly mediated world? Most of us struggle to manage our connection to technology in a way that feels healthy and balanced, often at the peril of our personal relationships and even our own sanity.

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of tech/human connectivity can overwhelm even the savviest of techies and frazzle even the most zen amongst us. So here are 10 rules to guide you toward digital happiness:

1. Be present: Being present is perhaps the rarest, most valuable gift you can give someone today. We tend to privilege whomever or whatever is happening virtually rather than the individuals in our physical midst, despite the significance of the body in forming bonds and communicating most effectively. Opting out of our immediate context has become an epidemic.

A few remedies: Engage in a game of phone stacking next time you’re out with friends (the challenge: be the first to check your phone and pay the entire bill!) and don’t multitask when using technology to connect with someone (i.e. don’t surf the web while talking on the phone / Skyping / FaceTiming). That little bit of discipline can have huge relationship rewards.

2. Practice good netiquette: Gone are the days of not calling after 10pm or sending handwritten thank you notes (though that etiquette is appreciated now more than ever). The rules of technological engagement and virtual communication are in a constant state of flux, and most technologies are still too new for us to create a cultural consensus about best practices.

So while everyone has their own interpretation of what is and isn’t acceptable, it’s wise to know when to pick up the phone (instead of texting), be mindful of oversharing (it makes everyone uncomfortable), and when in doubt: digitally do onto others as you’d have done to you.

3. Make meaningful connections: Nothing makes us happier (or healthier) than connecting with our fellow humans – not fame, not beauty, not even money. And technology allows us to connect with more people more often than ever before. So we should be happier than ever, right? Not quite. Trolling your Facebook feed for hours or obsessively clicking through your ex’s Instagram photos does not a happy person make.

Limit your overall use of social media by checking it at certain times of day – rather than leaving it open on your computer – and adjust your phone settings so you don’t receive a notification every time someone posts a photo of the sandwich they just ate. In other words, use the incredible technological tools we have for actual connection, not self-destructive voyeurism and time wasting.

4. Create boundaries: Technology allows us to operate in a virtual office outside the confines of a stuffy cubicle, which can be extremely liberating. But that sense of freedom quickly dissipates when that same technology tethers us to work 24/7. You are more productive and efficient when you create the time and space to disconnect from work, however briefly. Unfortunately, many companies ignore the benefits of downtime and instead foster a culture of shaming employees who take personal time away from technology.

Establish your norm and make it known that you will be unavailable after a particular time in the evening or on the weekend, except when there is a major deadline. And ask your colleagues to call – not text or email – if there is an emergency. Give yourself permission not to reply to text messages and emails immediately when you’re focused on a task or with friends and family. Once you train people that you’re not always on call, you transform expectations and ease anxiety.

5. Manage your virtual identity: Everyone knows appearances matter. But we still underestimate the power of virtual self-presentation. We now experience a new multiplicity of self. We are at once an embodied, singular presence, and yet our image is replicated and working for (or against) us across the web. And our virtual bodies leave a permanent legacy which radically multiplies our visibility.

Be conscious of and consistent with how you self-present online. Be as diligent and mindful of your virtual “appearance” as you would be about your physical grooming rituals. The digital equivalent of being seen with food in your teeth is not so easily remedied by a trip to the restroom, and your audience is much, much bigger.

6. Track your life: The “quantified self,” or “self-knowledge through numbers,” is a growing movement and way of life. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can fine-tune our existence and become a better version of ourselves. Wristbands like Jawbone allow you to track your movement, sleep patterns, and mood. Sites like Mint track your spending, and apps like RunKeeper serve as your digital trainer. This type of technology helps you to be more conscious of your habits and can provide much-needed motivation in crucial life areas.

7. Get organized: Paper may be on the decline, but clutter persists. With a little help from technology, it’s possible for even the messiest individuals to organize their lives. Make notes to yourself on Evernote to ensure that you never forget anything again. Switch over to Google Drive for everything your write or create, because computers crash (I promise yours will eventually) and nothing’s more devastating than losing the fruits of your labor. Plus, Google Drive makes it easier to collaborate and access your work from anywhere – and co-creation and convenience are happiness boosters.

8. Be efficient: I eat the same thing almost everyday for breakfast and lunch. Why? Because I’ve found something that tastes good and makes me feel great – and because too many choices make us less happy. More choices require time and energy and shift our focus away from other things that matter. More choices also breed a sense of anxiety about making the “right” choice. Enlist technology to amp up efficiency and block out some of the noise.

Use a news aggregator like Feedly to focus on the topics and articles that are most interesting and relevant to you; download Stitcher to create podcast playlists and listen to your favorite stations; subscribe to Goodreads for book recommendations from your social network; and tell Shosh your lifestyle preferences to receive weekly suggestions on how to plan your dates and weekend adventures. Boom – clarity.

9. Unplug: Create time everyday when you are fully tech-free. I highly recommend turning your phone off at night. No, not on silent or ‘do not disturb.’ All the way off. “But it’s my alarm clock!” No problem – you can buy a very cheap, reliable alarm clock for just that purpose! And turning off your phone (and other gadgets) will actually help you get more restful sleep.

Then find more extended times to engage in regular mini media fasts, or periodically limit your use of technology to one particular activity, like watching a movie on Netflix with your significant other or putting on Spotify and having a dance party. (Sign up for the weekly Undo email to join the community of unpluggers and receive creative suggestions on how to spend your tech-free time.)

10. Center yourself: Being alone has become taboo and introversion is misunderstood. And despite the link between happiness and a strong social network, there is such a thing as too much connection. It is in solitude and stillness that we recharge, find inspiration, and refocus. There is value in our own company, uninterrupted by technology. Carve out some space when you can be alone. Try to meditate in whatever form is best for you: engage in a moving meditation via a hike or yoga, or just sit in silence for five minutes midday. Allow yourself to clear your mind – and you might be surprised at how much more you have to say.

What rules do you follow to balance your relationship with technology and foster digital happiness? Tell me about it in the comments.