Emotional Health

Real Life vs. Virtual Reality: Healthy Pleasures

A few months ago, I put a bird feeder in the window at my office. Though my office is in the middle of the concrete maze of New York, I am lucky enough to have a place that faces a peaceful garden. Having noticed the large variety (ok, some variety) of birds there, I thought a feeder might attract more.

I worried that the feeder, hung just outside a window, was too close to humans for the birds to be comfortable, but sure enough they have come. And not a single pigeon, I might add. However, I’ve seen sparrows, robins, doves, and even the occasional tufted titmouse.

This small addition gives me (and some of my patients) real pleasure. Some of it comes from the knowledge that I am supporting the overstressed avian population, though I am sure this minimal effort is not doing all that much for them. But I enjoy the birds’ visits.  I wonder  if they are the same ones as yesterday or a revolving gang of neighborhood pals. In the mornings and evenings they sing to each other, and I like to imagine that there are more of them since word got out about the feeder at Number 15.

When I was a child, I was mystified by my parents’ interest in birds, gardens, and, worst of all, antique stores. The latter truly felt to me like they were designed as a form of psychological torture for children. We  were required to be still, quiet, and above all, not touch anything. The proprietors were seldom happy to see you. They never had anything to eat either, yet my parents seldom passed up an opportunity to drag us into one—and stay 45 minutes.

Now I get it, of course. Furniture is very interesting to me since I am now a consumer, even antiques, now that I know something more about them. Children are usually not interested in things they can’t understand at all, and adults often assume they don’t want to know. Ignorance and boredom proliferate in these situations.

Birds were totally boring to me as well. I knew nothing about them, and, as a result, could hardly distinguish one from another. Zoo animals, on the other hand, were often exotic, sometimes even dangerous, and easy to distinguish as they were identified individually with plaques and even brief descriptions. They were fascinating, exciting. Adults assumed that kids liked zoos, so they often made the effort to teach children something about the animals.

While it wasn’t hard to imagine the excitement of a safari, bird watching seemed like the ultimate proof that adults were lame and boring. Again, I get it now, and though I am unlikely to turn into one of those ladies who feeds pigeons in the park (though there are worse things), I care about birds as much as any other form of wildlife.

While excitement is key to children’s pleasure, it isn’t always clear what will do the trick. Little boys derive excitement from seeing cars and construction machines, though most girls I have known have little interest in vehicles, and don’t get what the fuss is about. Boys’ enthusiasm is due somewhat because they are so knowledgeable about them. They know what each machine does, and are awestruck but their powers.

Knowledge fosters connection and that in turn fosters excitement. Today it is harder than ever to snag kids’ attention when screens offer flashy entertainment at the touch  of a button. Adults, too, are lured by the instant gratification the digital age provides. More and more is being written about the dangers of being sucked into the dark hole of the Internet. There are physical, literal dangers, of course, like the strangers preying on us for criminal activities and theft. The psychological dangers are ubiquitous, too, and evidence is mounting that they should not be dismissed.

Journalist Diane Sawyer did an extensive investigation of our addiction to “screen time” for ABC News. The news is startling: most adults spend the equivalent of 49 days a year looking at screens—a month and a half of our lives—and kids’ statistics are worse. Even the Pope has complained about clergy who seem to be always looking at their phones. In one revealing clip, the camera follows visitors at an aquarium, all of whom are taking videos and pictures of the fish rather than actually looking at them.

Reliance on screens has changed our culture in dramatic ways. Watching a thriller, I now find myself wondering why the victim doesn’t text someone for help. Unless it’s set in the past, movies and novels now have to build in some reason why victims are isolated: no cell service, for example, or phone’s battery is dead, in order to create dramatic tension. While on the one hand it’s good to know that help is usually a button away, on the other, there are fewer surprises in life these days.

We no longer argue about facts because we can look anything up and verify it. Evidence shows that students are learning fewer facts and skills, reasoning they can always look something up, so why bother to know it? Where is all this going? Can we stop this runaway train?

Internet addiction, recognized now as a serious problem, cost us time, money, and relationships. Rehabs have sprung up to treat addicts, and some vacation spots boast of their isolation from the Internet and social media as a selling point.

One of the most destructive things about screens is that they offer too much distraction. Unlike the experience of flow, when we get lost down a rabbit hole because we are absorbed in a compelling activity that requires concentration, screens are designed to divert our attention from one thing to another. We are constantly being lured to other links, sites, messages, etc., and this incessant surfing guarantees that getting absorbed in one satisfying thing is impossible. Though many of us feel like we’ve gone down into a hole during our screen time, it is usually not in a satisfying way.

While our connectivity promises that the next exciting thing, whether it be a message, a news flash, or a photo of kittens, is just a button away, we are drawn further and further from the concrete pleasures of the real world. Birds and flowers, and other natural wonders are all there for our pleasure, and can endure in memory even if we don’t get the picture on our phone.




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