My long-time readers will remember that after I returned from what for me was a landmark trip to Portugal in 2014, I had an epiphany regarding consumption, usage, and the difference between a socially programmed want, and a true need. To make a long story short, I spent three months in a small village called Santa Cruz da Trapa in the Portuguese countryside. Because I didn’t have enough money to pay for extra checked bags, I took only two average sized suitcases; one for toiletries and medications, and one for clothing. I also didn’t have money to buy a lot of souvenirs, or the luggage space to bring them home with me. So I took little with me, brought little home, and lived simply due to the nature of where I was.
When I came home, I was confronted with so much STUFF: a collection of dozens of CDs, a walk-in closet so overflowing with clothing that the floor was even covered with it, and an absurd amount of accessories and shoes. Having become accustomed to living simply, the absurdity and extravagance of my consumerism finally became apparent to me. So, I spent the following months purging my belongings and redefining what I valued and wanted to make room for in my life.
It’s easy enough to recognize the way that the concept of living with less should affect one’s buying habits. But what about our internet habits? What about who and what we connect with, and how? Shouldn’t we scrutinize and filter the online content that we consume with the same thoughtfulness and reflection that we should filter the material objects that we let into our lives? I think so! As of 2015, the average American checks their phone about 46 times per day! That number goes up for 18 – 24 year olds. That means that we are consuming digital content almost non-stop. Even disregarding the debate about whether or not our attachment to our phones constitutes a clinical addiction (I do believe that it does), surely we can all agree that spending that much time on our phones opens us up to a barrage of images, sounds, and connections. Our time is precious, as is our emotional energy. We shouldn’t be spending it immersed in a world that doesn’t really exist.
Social media is designed to keep you coming back for more, more, more! It does this by exploiting humans’ need for attention, and the brain’s chemical response to the pleasure of an extrinisc reward. We can’t help it; the more we use it, the more likes we get, the more we feel that our peers approve of us, the more our brains will oblige us to go back for more dopamine. It may not be a chemical dependency, but it is an addiction in the informal sense of the term. Whatever you call it, this habit can and does consume us. How many times have you taken multiple selfies, sifted through the snapshots looking for the one that will portray you in the best light and garner the most positive reactions, edited and posted it, and anxiously awaited the likes, loves, and comments? You’ve certainly done it more than once. That doesn’t make you egotistical or narcissistic; it makes you human, and therefore vulnerable to exploitative programming.
I personally live a fairly socially isolated life. I don’t have a car, my husband and I have a very low income, and I am disabled. I don’t have any close friends near me, and I don’t really have opportunities to go out and make friends. My social life has mostly consisted of online interactions. My husband and I got together because of Facebook and Skype! I’ve spent years fearing complete isolation if I were to step offline. But over the past couple of years, I’ve desired ever more strongly to make sure that the people in whom I was investing my time and energy online, cared as deeply about me as I have about them.
I’ve also been trying to make sure that my time spent online isn’t interfering with real life opportunities for connection, reflection, and creativity. I’ve frequently abstained from social media for a day or two at a time. At first, it seemed daunting, a real test of my willpower. But as it has become easier, every time I’ve gone offline, or “unplugged,” as it were, I have been rewarded with something much richer than likes, comments, or superficial interactions: tranquility. The contrast between being present online, and being present only for people, is clear. When I am on social media I am bombarded every time I scroll or swipe through my feed and notifications. Mentally, it is as if I am being shouted at by dozens of voices at once; likes, comments, shares, tags, advertisements, status updates, posts from pages, and photos all join together in a cacophony of insistent demands on my time and attention..
But what do those things really add to my life, besides a momentary dopamine rush from split second expressions of approval, often given mostly just in hopes that I’ll return the favor? They drain my time, dragging me away from precious time with my husband, to pray and read Quran, or for doing homework, learning about things that interest me, free thinking, leisurely reading, writing, art, singing, and other forms of creativity and growth. It has only enriched my social life in a few rare cases. Even then, nurturing those friendships won’t be done with likes and comments. It will be accomplished by talking and spending time together, even if only in a video chat or via text messages. Staying online in hopes that out of hundreds of interactions, I’ll stumble across one lifelong friendship, instead of investing in pre-existing friendships that are in their infancy, isn’t a smart idea. It’s like throwing your gambling winnings into even more games – it’s usually wiser to just stop while you’re ahead!
Last week, I took the initiative and deactivated my Facebook account for a week. Instead of scrolling a newsfeed, I exchanged phone numbers with those select people on there who cared. I spent some of my newfound free time to chat with those people, respond to a backlog of messages, and reach out to some people who I hadn’t really talked to in far too long. I didn’t see or focus on the people who claimed to care but never reached out. I didn’t think about all of the events I wasn’t getting to participate in, or the people who’ve forgotten about me because I’m not out in society enough to be remembered. Instead, I was focused on my faith, on writing (I’m finally back to writing here – that should tell you something!), having enriching conversations, and studying. I was more productive and less depressed and anxious.
When I finally came back online on Monday, the shock of the flood of content and noise – I can’t put in any other way, mentally Facebook is just loud to me – felt overwhelming. I also realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Truly, there wasn’t much of value there to be missed. I’m still working on connecting via Whatsapp with a few more people from Facebook and Instagram, and then when Ramadan begins around May 15, I plan to, inshallah, deactivate both of those acounts (Facebook and Instagram are my only social media accounts now) for the entire month. In the meantime, I won’t be online much, inshallah. After Ramadan, who knows? I’m not eager to lose myself to base instincts in a desperate search for happiness that, contrary to my evolutionary programming, is best found far beyond quick dopamine hits.
For me personally, my minimalism journey started out with learning that God didn’t create humans to be Pavlov’s dogs, doing as we were trained, hoarding posessions in hopes of finding the abundance that we actually should be seeking on a spiritual level, not a material one. And now, it is teaching me that part of not losing my mental autonomy is minimizing what my mind consumes, in much that same way that I strive to minimize my material posessions. Instead of stuffing my life full of things, digital content, and superficial interactions, my hope is to fill it with enriching spiritual practices, relationships, creative outlets, and increased productivity in my pursuit of an academic career.
Wish me luck ✌