Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Distraction and Happiness

Being fully present

The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had the following to say about distraction:

"When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men…I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber."

Interestingly, there is contemporary empirical evidence that Pascal was right. A case can be made that distraction decreases happiness.[1] A study conducted at Harvard University revealed that when people were engaged in some activity, such as reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they were focused on the activity itself. When they were thinking about something else, they were less happy. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what there were actually doing at that moment.

In our age of multitasking, always-open email programs at work, social media, and smartphones, we are constantly connected to others. Perhaps these near-constant distractions are undermining our happiness. What can we do about this?

There are several suggestions to consider which will help limit the distractions that are undermining our happiness. Most of them are pretty easy to imagine, but perhaps much more difficult for us to actually do.

  • First, take breaks from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. New research from Pew may suggest that people are experiencing Facebook fatigue: 61% of Facebook users have taken a break from the service for several weeks or more.[2] Why not join them, and expand it to other forms of social media?
  • Second, one thing I am attempting is to only deal with email at a few set times per day. When Outlook is open, it is impossible to focus on the task at hand when I’m notified on a regular basis that I just received an email. So, close it out to protect blocks of time, at work and at home.
  • Third, leave the cell phone behind during your kid’s soccer match, while you are out with friends for dinner, or having an important conversation with your significant other.
  • Finally, follow Pascal’s advice and carve out some time to be alone. Solitude and silence, while initially uncomfortable, can add depth and richness to our lives if we regularly practice them.

I think digital technology and digital media bring us many benefits. However, we must be intentional about keeping them in their proper place in our lives. Technology makes a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

 I'm on Twitter, if you are looking for a distraction!

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/science/16tier.html?_r=2&src=me&ref=homepage

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/05/tech/social-media/facebook-breaks-pew/index.html?hpt=hp_c3

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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