Why We Need to Be Spontaneous
Technology can eliminate surprise from your life. Don't let it.
Posted May 12, 2016
While I was growing up, answering the telephone—yes, the archaic landline—was like playing the lottery: If luck was on my side, I’d get a call from my best friend and we’d gab for hours. Alternative outcomes included grudgingly passing along a call to my sister, struggling to end a call with a telemarketer in the least rude way possible, or chatting briefly with my grandmother before passing her along to my mom. In the days before call display was the norm, you never knew who was going to be on the other end of the line. Picking up the phone was, in a small way, a daily spontaneous act.
Lately, phone calls—the cell, Skype, or FaceTime kind; who even has a landline anymore?—often follow a lengthy string of text messaging to set up a phone date, often followed by subsequent texts to cancel, reschedule, or cancel again. So much energy has already been expended that there is undue pressure to carve out at least one hour to sit and chat. If the medium of choice is something like Skype, planning for this “date” also includes looking somewhat presentable for the person who’s supposedly staring at you from their screen. (Although research suggests that Skype callers actually spend more time looking at the video reflection of themselves than at their virtual companions; see Miller & Sinanan, 2014.)
Technology can be a blessing, and I am thankful that we can share face-to-face calls and text messages with loved ones across the globe. But technology has also largely kyboshed the spontaneous phone calls of old. Indeed, there’s far less of a reason to even make a call in the first place, since we can stay up-to-date with most friends via their social media updates. But it’s not just phone calls: New technology has changed our experience of spontaneity in general. There’s no longer a need to see if we can stumble upon a great new restaurants since Yelp can lead us to the “best” ramen in town.
In the words of Jeremy Glass from his article on thoughtcatalog.com:
"We can’t jump off bridges anymore because our iPhones will get ruined. We can’t take skinny dips in the ocean, because there’s no service on the beach and adventures aren’t real unless they’re on Instagram. Technology has doomed the spontaneity of adventure and we’re helping destroy it every time we Google, check-in, and hashtag."
In another perspective, one could argue that technology enhances spontaneity. Texting is an efficient way to quickly check in, ask a question, or just let others know you’re thinking about them. It also provide an effective means for making last-minute plans—organizing drinks with friends during your commute home was far more complicated in a pre-cellphone era. That being said, texting makes it that much simpler to cancel plans last minute; it’s easier for most to bail on plans via the written text than through a direct call.
Why should we be concerned whether technology decreases or increases spontaneity? I’ll be the first to promote the value of planning, setting goals, and preparation, but I also believe there is an important place for living in the moment. As Jane Austen wrote:
“Why not seize the pleasure at once?—How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!”
Edward Slingerland of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford explores the power of spontaneity in his book, Trying Not to Try. He argues that striving intensely and working harder to achieve things like happiness and creativity can actually be counterproductive, noting the value of letting spontaneity take over in achieving these goals. He uses the lens of early Chinese thought and modern science to explore how, where, and when spontaneity can be better achieved.
Many of us have experienced the unparalleled satisfaction that arises from unplanned experiences, which exceed the expectations we never had the chance to build up. Spontaneous outings, unstructured afternoons, and spur-of-the-moment decisions can be incredibly rewarding, and pleasantly surprising. (There is a difference between spontaneity and impulsivity, the latter of which can have various disadvantages. See Leon Seltzer’s exploration of the topic here).
The other day, a girlfriend I haven’t seen or talked to in months called me unexpectedly. Because she had recently moved, I didn’t recognize her new number and, although my instinct was to let the call go to voicemail, my curiosity got the better of me. When she told me who it was, I experienced momentary panic: Did something happen? Was she OK? No, she was simply calling to say hello. Neither of us had much time to chat, but we caught up for about 15 minutes. It felt unpressured, natural, and completely made my day.
Miller, D., & Sinanan, J. (2014). Webcam. Polity Press: Cambridge.