THE BLOG
08/12/2011 11:15 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2011

Time, Well-Being and the Political Moment

We live in increasingly chaotic times. Political events seem to flow from crisis to crisis. In the past seven months, our politicians have taken us to the brink of government shutdowns on two occasions, creating a crisis atmosphere that has been amplified tenfold through 24/7 media coverage. Each crisis has provoked fears of economic meltdown, which would, in turn, stall a tepid recovery, which would then lead us inexorably into a double-dip recession, or worse yet, a second Great Depression. Now Standard and Poor's, a debt rating agency which has, to say the least, a questionable track record, has downgraded the credit rating of the United States Government, which has brought a plunge in world stock markets, nasty words from the Chinese Government, blame-gaming from our shallow politicians, and reinforced fears of the hard times that mark our future.

If this waterfall of news isn't bad enough, these events seem to occur with such lightning speed that it's almost impossible to understand what's happening in the world. If we are to believe the results of various opinion polls, the craziness of our political life has brought on a general state of confusion, dread, and anger. Like millions of Americans, I have reached a point of political saturation: no more stupidity, no more ignorance, and no more meaningless theatrics -- all of which have produced counter-productive results.

Given these dire circumstances, what can be done? We can certainly continue our routines, tune into the digital chatter and beat on the dead horse of politics. Sadly, such activity usually produces limited results and much frustration. To understand better our political processes and map out future strategies, why not slow down a bit and step out of the whirlwind of contemporary political life? Why not take a short vacation from e-mail, the Internet and cable news?

Easier said than done.

It is very difficult to wean ourselves from the speed and convenience of contemporary digital technology. If my students are a representative example, our use of Smart Phones, or iPhones, take your pick, iPods, DVD players, Kindles, various game devices, laptops and/or notebook computers, seems almost addictive. At my university, students are asked to turn off their cell phones for the 50 to 75 minutes they spend in a classroom. After an hour or so of digital deprivation, they can finally leave the no-cell phone zone and whip out their digital devices to check their messages or make a phone call.

What are the costs of such high-speed digital convenience? There are certainly cognitive costs. A number of recent studies, including a notable one by a UCLA team of psychologists, have found that multi-tasking, which today is almost a necessary everyday practice, adversely affects the brain's capacity to learn and remember complex concepts. High-speed digital convenience also has significant social costs. When we are hooked on sending, responding and re-sending messages at greater and greater speeds, we necessarily isolate ourselves. In our speedy 4-G networked world, we have little time for reading long, complicated books, quiet reflection, or serious one-on-one conversation with family, friends or colleagues.

The upshot of this socially isolating digitization is that we don't have the time to dig deeply into complicated private or public matters. There are fewer and fewer right moments for family members to share a private thought. There's not enough time for legislators to read carefully the complex clauses of important legislation. We are so consumed by moving from place-to-place, activity-to- activity and message-to-message, there is, in short, little time to think about our well-being. That means that despite the convenience and blazing effectiveness of the tools that shape our digitalized social relations, many of us are miserable. Recent polling suggests that we increasingly feel financially burdened, stressed to the max, angry, unloved, isolated, and unfulfilled -- all examples of a lack of well-being.

Recent psychological and anthropological studies that probe the determinants of well-being suggest that wealth in and of itself does not necessarily bring us to a state of grace. If money can't bring you happiness, what can? Scholars suggest that much of our well-being comes from our often satisfying, sometimes frustrating relations with others -- our connection to the social world. Although Niger is the poorest nation in the world, many of the socially resilient people I've met there during many years of field research seem to enjoy surprisingly strong states of well-being. When I ask my Nigerien friends, what is important, the invariable answer is: the quality of our relations with others. In Niger real wealth is measured not simple in a tally of possessions and goods, but in the number of carefully nurtured people in a person's network, which means that people take the time to talk to and know one another. People in Niger like to say that connecting to others makes "life a little sweeter" in a poor unforgiving land where the average person earns about one dollar a day.

In America, the land of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there seems to be a limited pool of well-being. We are wired-in, but existentially alone; we are electronically connected in social networks, but isolated from social groups. In the political arena, our public officials appear distant and disconnected. Speeding from fund-raiser to fund-raising, from talking-point to talking-point, they have become unthinking talking heads who appear "dazed and confused." Streaking along their singular political trails at blazing speeds, they are too busy to think about, let alone act upon our collective social misery.

Perhaps we all need a short vacation from digital technology and its social isolation. In this time of need, perhaps we all need double our efforts to reinforce our relations with family, friends and colleagues. In the public sphere, as the debt ceiling fiasco revealed, social isolation and the intolerance it breeds have broken our political system. To mend it, our politicians will have to mend frayed relations between them and us. They will need to slow down and look anew at the public, remembering that they are public servants. In so doing they can create those inter-personal connections that make "life a little sweeter." If they remain wired in to their exclusive circuits, our social decline will be rapid and irrevocable.

It's time to reconnect. Our future depends upon it.