One common challenge for happiness these days is the feeling of being distracted and overwhelmed. And it’s easy to assume that we feel this way because we’re using the internet, email, social media, and other newfangled attractions.
Throughout history, new technologies have made people anxious: writing would destroy our memories, print books would confuse our minds, electric lights would ruin our eyes, speeding trains would damage our brains, novels would destroy our ability to separate fact from fiction.
But while we believe that it’s the new gizmos (the book, locomotive, automobile, telephone, TV, email, or Twitter) that make us feel rattled or absent-minded, it’s really ourselves. In college, I’d read Henry James’s demanding masterpiece Portrait of a Lady for hours, and now I almost never do that kind of reading. But is this because of the internet? The world has changed, but I have also changed.
Consider this passage:
Look back in your memory and see…how large a part has been taken up by useless grief, foolish gladness, greedy desire, or polite conversation; how little of yourself is left to you. Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” Minor Dialogues (Amazon, Bookshop)
This lament sounds very familiar to anyone who’s complained about Facebook, yet it was written by Seneca almost two thousand years ago.
When I feel distracted or overwhelmed, I remind myself that I can’t blame the internet. If I want a life with more time for calm and reflection, I need to create it for myself.