David Sax is an award-winning writer whose work on cultural and business trends has been featured in New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg Business Week, The New York Times, and more. His books include the James Beard Award-winner Save the Deli (Amazon, Bookshop) and #1 Washington Post bestseller The Revenge of Analog (Amazon, Bookshop). His latest book, The Future is Analog: How to Create a More Human World (Amazon, Bookshop) just hit shelves.
I couldn’t wait to talk to David about happiness, habits, and technology.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
David: Leaving my phone at home, and heading outside. Usually for a walk, though sometimes for another activity (hiking, biking, surfing, paddle boarding). As soon as the phone is away from my body, my happiness increases. It never fails. It’s like the world opens up before me, and I reconnect with my senses, and my mind, and that’s when my imagination and emotions wake back up, and the ideas begin to flow again. When I’m working on a book, especially early on when the ideas are still forming, I might do this twice a day or more. A sort of cognitive reset, that also benefits the body and soul.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it is never a static thing. Happiness is not some endpoint or destination you arrive at. It is fleeting, and true happiness is sort of a positive balance of more moments of fleeting happiness than less. So instead of chasing it, you just have to try to keep tipping the balance in the moment, by what you do, and how you think.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
What’s surprising to me is how universal the desire for analog experiences is across the world. Whether it was the revival of physical goods, like vinyl records, film cameras, or bookstores, or the experience in the pandemic, of something like virtual school, or live streamed cultural events, there’s a clear global voice that says “We value real things, and the analog life,” and that the digital future is not something everyone is widely embracing, despite what we’re sold.
Readers are also consistently surprised at how the analog resurgence is driven by younger generations, the Millennials and Z’s, and others who grew up with digital as the default, and often knew little else. For them, analog is novel, and digital is kind of boring. But too often older generations assumed, wrongly, that because a kid or teenager likes to play on an iPad, that’s somehow all they want and desire. What I’ve found is so much of this is rooted in people’s personal happiness…those who opt for an analog alternative in part of their life do it because it makes them happier. A great example are books. Most books sell more in paper, and younger readers are a big driver of this. Why? Because they enjoy reading in paper more, despite the costs, the space constraints, the sheer heft of all that book. My kids are a prime example. They have no interest in ebooks. Zilch.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I used to be pretty good with the unplugged sabbath. It began at a Jewish retreat I went to in 2008, organized by a group called Reboot (who went on to help create the National Day of Unplugging). It was so simple, and the time was so defined, that I built my Saturdays around it. It’s become more challenging as I have kids, and they need pickups or playdates, or whatever, but I still give it my best shot.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
According to the quiz, I’m an “obliger.” I guess I see this most with volunteer work on the parent council at my kids’ school…but I’m also one to push back, be annoying, and “voluntold” other parents for stuff that needs to get done. I’m typically avoided in the schoolyard!
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Laziness. Stretching is the perfect example. It’s great for me. I’m happier when I do it (and miserable when I don’t, and pull out something). But as soon as I stretch enough to work out whatever kink I have, I stop. “Ok, I’m better,” and back to not stretching. I wish I could be more disciplined.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I guess the original unplugged sabbath ritual, after that first Reboot retreat I went to in 2007. I was forced to shut off my laptop and cell phone for a day (pre-smartphone, pre-Blackberry, pre-iPhone), and I just realized “Oh, yeah, that was great. Let’s do this every week.”
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Nine years ago, when our daughter was born, my good friend Larry Smith (of Smithmag and six word stories) gave me the six word advice: In is Bad, Out is Good. In short, don’t sit inside with a crying newborn, just because it’s easier. Get outside. Force yourself outside. You won’t regret it. That advice carries over so perfectly to other parts of life, and was my salvation during the depths of the pandemic. I write about how it was the one thing that rescued both my body and soul during the dark days of lockdown. I’d be inside, climbing the walls, shuttling between screens and pleading with my kids during virtual school, and it’d pop into my head. I’d toss aside the phone and turn off the tablets, and force everyone out, and once we hit the park, things just reset. It restored me, without fail.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
I read Barbarian Days by William Finnegan (Amazon, Bookshop) when it came out, and I loved it, and it got me back into surfing, even though I live in Toronto, and surfing here means donning a super thick wetsuit and trying to catch waves on a lake, in the worst imaginable conditions (ice, rain, crazy wind). It was the best thing I ever did. I’m actually re-reading the book now, because the first time I barely even noticed the writing, I was just so pumped about the passion for surfing it reignited in me.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
I think it’s the idea that nonfiction writers and journalists operate in the same way as novelists…romantically typing away at brilliant ideas until a perfect book emerges. In reality, we create a similar end product but in an entirely different way. A novelist will chip away at the marble until the beautiful sculpture emerges. A journalist/nonfiction writer will assemble something resembling a coherent structure from random objects they find, then nail, staple, and glue together, so that only in the end does it resemble something. And it’s the information we find along the way (through reading, interviews, conversations and research) that shape the final product.
I would also, of course, shine a spotlight on anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention.
Well, in terms of happiness (and the theme of my book), I want people to reflect back on the pandemic, and the times they were most happy and those they were most unhappy. I’d wager the unhappiest times were those fully ensconced in digital: shuttling between screens for work, entertainment shopping, and even conversations, in a spiral of exhaustion, eye strain, and stress. And I’d wager the happiest were those away from screens: kicking a ball in the park, walking in a city or forest, having a face to face conversation for the first time in a while.
Our sense of happiness has evolved in tune with our analog selves and the world around us. There is increasing science that bears this out, but really, if we look back, it’s so obvious. Try thinking of a single truly happy memory that occurred digitally…online, when you were looking at a screen. Almost everything we associate with happiness is analog. As we hurtle toward whatever the next version of the future is, and you’re told that the future is digital, please try and remember that, and know that you can shape the happiness you feel in the future. What does that look and feel like, and what role does non-digital experiences and technology play in that?