Much has been written online in response to the provocative research by Stanford neuroscientist Sylvia Morelli and her quote ”Being distracted reduces our empathy for others and blunts responses in the brain,” says Morelli. “So it’s possible that being distracted may also reduce our own happiness.” “Consistently, the people operating under that so-called cognitive load showed reduced empathy reactions, with neural activity down across four different brain regions. Memorizing an eight-digit number is hardly something you do every day, but juggling e-mails, meeting deadlines and worrying about the next round of layoffs is, and that takes its toll” from The Pursuit of Happiness, (Time, July 8-15, 2013, pp. 24-36). Here we will explore some implications for society in the face of increasing distractions and today’s culture of empathy.
“Knowing the latest research on how we approach happiness may change your behaviors and mindset.”
- On an individual level, which impacts the self and immediate family members, for example, I might set ‘time outs’ from using electronic gadgets (PC, smart phone, iPad, game console, etc.) especially on weekends when I would rather connect with my family. According to the research, I can feel more deeply and empathize in tune with my fellow man if I am not distracted.
The primary distraction these days is ‘being electronically connected’ (at home and at work). And increasingly as gadgets become smaller, cheaper and faster, being connected electronically is easier to do during morning, afternoon and night. “It is not unusual to go out to a restaurant or anywhere and people supposed to be spending time together are all on mobile devices.”
– Setting down the smartphone will also help others feel they are important to me, that they have my full attention and that I see them as a priority. The implication is that we now have to proactively manage the time we humanly connect with others and empathetically listen to our inner circle member with 100% focused attention.
“Many people have lost the ability to SIMPLY BE, and to enjoy the moment,
- having just a cup of tea or eating lunch without continually watching TV or reading the newspaper or working on the computer.
- We have to stop multi-tasking and working in auto-pilot, and choose to be in the moment.
To simply enjoy what we have, to savor it, be with it, and maybe we will not want as much because we realize we already have abundance. Maybe if we could choose to be less distracted, (we could) allow that empathetic compassionate side to blossom.”
Dr. Bev Smallwood likewise agrees that distractions are a happiness robber. “Though we are attached to them (electronic gadgets), are they really making us happy? Forget all about nature, beauty, mind, spirit, and soul. That’s just old stuff that no one needs.” Putting down things that distract us may help make us happier, allowing us to feel more deeply and connect with others more effectively.
Dr. Sandra Chapman, UTD Brain Health Science Center, agrees that limiting information and distractions is good for us and our brains. “Thanks to our technology driven and uber-connected world, the sheer volume of information we are exposed to every day is nearly 200 times more than we were exposed to 20 years ago.” Research shows this overload comes at a price.” Three of her 7-Secrets to Turbocharge Your Brain include:
- Start single tasking,
- Limit information and
- Detox distractions.
Terry Fitzpatrick captured it best when he said: “We in the Western, so-called developed world, are living much more distracted lives than we did 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. Technology, thought to be our savior, has taken over many of our lives, and it is changing life by the minute.” We are burning ourselves out at work with too much electronic connectedness and too little undistracted time to connect with others, think strategically for ourselves or be proactive, rather than reacting to e-mail, texts and tweets.
Electronic connections via smartphones have followed us into the privacy of our bedroom, bathroom, shower or public restroom stall. We feel the tether of a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week connection to work, especially if we work for a global company. Sometimes, we just feel the pressure to ‘get it done immediately’, per the electronic incoming e-mail request, rather than connect with the other person and truly understand each other. Our workplace (physical) buildings and environments could continually change to encourage face-to-face collaboration and understanding different personalities and styles by going beyond the text and video messages to fundamentally connect and understand each other.