A Millennial Quest for Meaning

An individual views a concert through an iPhone screen.

Part I. Humans understand complex concepts best through metaphor, likening the unknown to an idea one can readily understand. What follows is an account of metaphors and theoretical frameworks from throughout history to explain a concept that we’ll examine in light of contemporary social media use.

Metaphors & Theory

I n 1884, Edwin Abbot published a book called Flatland. The title refers to the 2-dimensional realm in which it takes place, inhabited by geometric figures. One day, the protagonist, a square, is visited by a sphere, who hails from the 3-D world of Spaceland. The square can only see the part of the sphere visible in his plain — a circle — and is shocked by the sphere’s ability to disappear and reappear at will, by entering and exiting the third dimension. The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the square, but he cannot comprehend it. The square cannot conceive of what it means to have thickness in addition to length and height, or to go “up,” where up means something other than north.

Frustrated, the sphere rips the square out of Flatland into the third dimension. He can at once see the insides of all of the houses and their inhabitants. The square is initially seized by horror and cannot speak.

When he does find voice, he shrieks: “Either this is madness or it is Hell!” The sphere replies: “It is neither. It is knowledge; it is Three Dimensions; open your eyes again and try to look steadily.”

Upon looking again, the square sees the world in a new light. He is overcome with a profound sense of wonder, joy, and awe that eclipses his initial fright and terror. The square becomes the sphere’s disciple, and eagerly returns to Flatland to spread the notion of the third dimension to his fellow Flatlanders, to no avail.

Similar stories appear in religious epics and tales of enlightenment from throughout history.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a group of people is chained to the wall of a cave, facing another wall. The prisoners watch shadows of things projected on the wall in front of them, but cannot see the things themselves. One day, a prisoner breaks free from the cave and escapes to the real world. The dazzling sunlight initially hurts his eyes, and he longs to return to the cave, but, gradually, his eyes adjust. Over time, he can see reflections of animals and objects, then the animals and objects themselves, the moon and stars at night, and eventually, the Sun. Convinced that the outside world is superior to that of the cave, the freed prisoner returns to the cave to encourage the cave dwellers’ departure. Upon returning, he initially cannot see because his eyes haven’t yet adjusted to the cave darkness. The other prisoners, thinking the outside world has blinded him, are frightened. When he tries to drag them out of the cave, they kill him.

A drawing depicting Plato’s Cave.

In the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, the God Krishna seeks to persuade Prince Arjuna to lead his troops into battle. When reasoning fails, Krishna gives Arjuna a cosmic “third eye” that allows him to see the universe as it really is. Arjuna is captured first by fearful trembling, then ecstatic joy, as he gazes upon the world in a way unlike ever before. He prostrates himself before Krishna and pledges to become his disciple. The third eye appears throughout Hinduism as a symbol of spirituality or enlightenment.

This feeling — experienced upon the square’s entrance to Spaceland, Arjuna’s attainment of a third eye, and the cave-dweller’s adjustment to a world illuminated by sunlight — is found universally across human cultures and time.

NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt describes it in the following metaphor: Imagine that humans move along a horizontal X axis of closeness — measuring close vs. distant interpersonal relationships — and a vertical Y axis of hierarchy or authority. In our society, hierarchical distinctions are often indicated with special prefixes like Dr., Mrs., or Sir. (So, for example, an authority figure one is close to, like a child’s parent, would be a similar X coordinate but slightly higher on the Y axis.) Haidt argues that all humans have the capacity to move along a third axis, a sort of 3-D axis, of sacredness or divinity, which we’ll call the Z dimension.

Figure 9.1 in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” showing the 3 dimensions of social space.

Z dimension experiences are the prophetic revelations that underlie many religions, but a religious experience is only one of the ways to encounter the Z dimension.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim described the Z dimension in terms of what he called the “sacred,” which he believed every society had. (For Durkheim, the term sacred didn’t have religious connotations.) The sacred was the holy grail of any society — the highest, most sought-after realm of being. The sacred was considered inviolable, rare, pure — as opposed to what he called the “profane” — the world of trivial, everyday, impure, common existence.

The majority of most people’s lives took place in the profane, but, if one was lucky, one could live a life punctuated by sacred experiences. The sacred was often reached through “rituals,” group experiences during which the individual was brought outside of himself and could perceive the emotional energy of the group of which he was a part, bringing a sense of togetherness and unity. This feeling, which Durkheim termed “collective effervescence,” is often found during group song or dance, the modern equivalent of which would be the crowd at a concert.

A crowd experiences collective effervescence at a music festival.

Haidt thought one key characteristic of the Z dimension was its inducement of a sense of awe. The emotion of awe occurs when two conditions are met:

  • 1) A person perceives something vast (either physically or conceptually)
  • 2) The vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures.

At this point, the person usually feels small and receptive, stopped in their cognitive tracks, which creates an opportunity for growth. Anything that shrinks the self — making one feel small or insignificant in the grand scheme of things — presents a chance for Z dimension growth. Awe-inducing experiences might even be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth. An extreme example of awe is the “overview effect” — a cognitive shift in awareness when astronauts first see Earth from space.

Awe has a number of positive effects, including: causing one to feel a connection to something greater than oneself; increasing one’s willingness to help others; reducing impatience; and enhancing perceived well-being. Neuroscience research tells us that awe’s strong effects have a neural basis: activity in the brain’s parietal lobe — which contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world — decreases during awe-inducing experiences.

As neuroscientist Andrew Newberg described it:

“The decrease of activity in [the parietal lobe] is going to be associated with a loss of the sense of self, and a loss of the boundary between the self and other things in the world, and ultimately a sense of oneness and connectedness.”

The Z Dimension & Nature

One source of awe is perception of the vastness and grandeur of nature. In the presence of a vast natural landscape, like the starry sky at night, a deep canyon, or a grand, mountainous overlook, the two preconditions for awe are often present: one 1) perceives something vast and 2) lacks the mental structures to completely accommodate it. It’s hard to conceive of how small of a speck you are when gazing at the stars of our galaxy overhead, let alone in the patchwork of galaxies that our universe comprises. At moments like these, if you really focus on it, if you let the experience wash over you, you’re often imbued with a sense of wonder, of admiration, of oneness or belonging.

A starry sky illuminating rock formations in Utah.

The entire New England transcendentalist movement was founded around the idea that time spent alone with nature brought some sort of divine connection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a founder of the movement, once wrote:

“Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” (Nature, 1836)

As a modern writer put it:

“I realized the universe had consumed my whole entity with its divine sensation of eternal bliss. All I could consciously perceive in that state of mind was absolute oneness. I felt being one with the banyan tree, under which I was sitting. I felt one with the corns in the field. I felt one with the sky and the clouds in it. As if everything was me, and I was everything…The transcendental state of Absolute Oneness sets the human mind free.” (Love, God & Neurons, 2016)

I recall, on a camping trip in Moab, Utah, a comparison between the two national parks between which the town is sandwiched. One young woman remarked that Arches was her preferred park because its beauty felt very personal and intimate — the roads were lined with rock arches we could ascend. A dissenting man argued that Canyonlands, the area’s other park, was more beautiful because it embodied the allure of the West, for him: the majesty and scope of the natural formations, and the sense of wonder, admiration, and shrinking of the self it evokes.

A collection of potentially awe-inducing experiences in nature.
Canyonlands National Park at sunrise.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow called such an experience a “peak experience.” Peak experiences result in what Maslow called “self-actualization,” which meant finding meaning in life; creative self-growth; and realizing one’s full potential as an individual. After fulfilling their own potential, self-actualizers often seek to help others self-actualize. Maslow wrote that the highest form of actualization was liberation from egocentricity and giving to a higher goal outside oneself — like altruism, spirituality, bettering nature, or helping the human race — which Maslow called “self-transcendence.”

Maslow is known for his famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” which organizes human desires in a pyramid. From top to bottom, the pyramid displays conditions that must be met for higher-reaching desires to be fulfilled. (For example, one must have sufficient food and water to survive before one can focus on forming relationships with other people.) Maslow placed the pursuit of self-actualization and peak experiences at the pyramid’s apex — the pinnacle of human achievement, the sine qua non of a meaningful, fully-lived life.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.

When Maslow revised his theory on the Hierarchy of Needs, making it more differentiated, he rendered self-transcendence the holy grail of human achievement.

Maslow’s revised Hierarchy of Needs.

According to Haidt’s research, another road to the Z dimension is the moral emotion of “elevation.” Elevation, the direct opposite of disgust, is experienced when someone is “uplifted” by witnessing “an act of moral beauty” — usually a display of virtue, gratitude, or selflessness — filling them with love, openness, and trust; increasing empathy; and motivating them to perform a similarly selfless or altruistic deed. In a University of Virginia study, elevation was even shown to stimulate the production of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that facilitates bonding and trust between people, including in the mother-baby breastfeeding relationship.

Part II. Now that we have a fundamental understanding of the Z dimension, its causes, and its products, we will examine how frequent social media and smartphone use can undermine the path to the Z dimension.

Social Media & Concerts

Recall Durkheim’s notion of the Z dimension, reached through sacred “rituals”: group experiences that allow the individual to be uplifted by the collective energy of the group and feel united with a larger whole. The hallmark of social media sites is their capacity to individualize experiences. Part of their appeal is that they enable individuals to showcase their personal take on an event, object, person, etc. With near-constant use, this feature locks users into what Durkheim would call the “profane,” the world of trivial, personal, egocentric concerns — as opposed to the transcendent, meaningful, valuable realm of the “sacred.”

Our prime modern example of Durkheimian sacredness was being moved by the energy of the crowd at a concert. A 2017 concert experience is markedly different from one of 2007. If you’ve attended a music show within the past decade, you’re sure to have noticed the phenomenon of smartphone concert documentation. Hundreds or thousands of flickers of light fill an audience, as audience members bear cellphones to videotape the performance before them. A 2015 Ticketfly poll found that 31 percent of people aged 18 to 34 used their smartphones during at least half of concerts, with 35 percent of females and 22 percent of males posting to social media during the event.

A concertgoer videotapes a show via iPhone.

Videos are frequently taken to post on social media at a later time, but, more often than not, videos are taken to post instantaneously on one social media in particular: Snapchat. Using the “story” feature, users can post what they’re doing at any given moment, as they’re doing it, and check back at any time to see which of their friends have viewed it. The trend of Snapchat-storying concerts (taking short videos of the concert and posting them to the app immediately) has escalated to astronomical proportions.

Members of a crowd document an event on their mobile devices.

I recently attended a 4-day music festival at which I became particularly perplexed by the trend. The smartphones of festival attendees — wearing 4-day pass bracelets (not just 1-day or weekend passes) — would wave in the air, opened to Snapchat, during every performance, throughout every day and night of the festival. This led me to an important realization: people weren’t simply using the Snapstory to convey: “Hey, look, world, I’m at Firefly this week.” If that were the case, one or two Snapchats on day 1 would suffice, for the 4-dayers. People were using Snapchat stories to live-broadcast every noteworthy or exciting moment of their 4-day, 5-night experience. It had become more than “Hey, look, world, I’m at Firefly this week.” It had become “Hey look, world, I’m at Firefly this week, and this is what Kesha was like at 9:45, and the Weeknd at 11, and Chance at 12:30, and this is the funny thing my friend Gabe did at 1,” for the entirety of the festival.

The Snapchat story epidemic runs directly counter to the notion of concert-based collective effervescence.

Instead of a potentially sacred experience — feeling elevated beyond yourself, thinking of yourself as small and your personal concerns as insignificant in the big picture — you are kept grounded in your profane world of trivial concerns.

(Which video should I post? What should the caption — and caption color, and size — and filter and geofilter be? And then intermittent checks, every few seconds or minutes, to see whether that co-worker or crush or ex or old friend has glimpsed it.)

A visualization of viewing the list of viewers of a Snapchat story.
A visualization of customizing a Snapchat.

Rather than moving concert-goers toward a collective, unified concert experience, Snapstories individualize users’ concert experiences. Rather than the crowd experiencing one united energy, each audience member is personalizing a unique experience through their 6 x 3 inch smartphone screen. The path to the sacred is blocked. Rather than the self-shrinking, empathy-inducing effects, the user’s egocentrism is reinforced.

In the sixties and seventies, concert-based collective effervescence took the shape of audience members raising their lighters in the air, especially during emotional parts of the concert, to build crowd solidarity and express appreciation for the performer.

Audience members raise lighters in the air at a concert.

While some performers have tried to resurrect this tradition in the form of iPhones, many have taken measures to reduce concert smartphone use. A number of bands and artists — including Alicia Keys, the Lumineers, Childish Gambino, Guns N’ Roses, and Cage the Elephant — have banned cell phones from their concerts to address this issue. A 2016 startup called Yondr easily enables artists to do so by manufacturing locked pouches for concert attendees to place their phones in during a show. Attendees carry the pouches with them, but they stay locked unless the attendee exits the phone-free concert zone.

A diagram depicting a venue using Yondr. The gray home button on this iPhone-like diagram is the unlocking station.

Yondr — whose motto is “be here now” — states its purpose as: “to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren’t focused on documenting or broadcasting it.”

A sacred experience is about perceiving something so deeply and profoundly that it resonates with you in a way different from how anything has ever resonated with you before. The degree to which an event resonates with or influences a person is admittedly subjective, but one concrete way to measure it (for non-amnesiacs) is through memory. An experience profoundly influential and resonant to a person — a peak experience, perhaps — is typically one that they remember clearly, that they recall constantly, that they consider crucial to their enlightenment and growth.

Scientists can study memories empirically as protein structures in the brain that connect neurons. Research suggests that smartphone photographers, at a neural level, experience — and later recall — the events they document in a uniquely different way from those who go phone-free. In 2014, NYU neuroscientists injected rats with a chemical that inhibited both the formation and recollection of memories. Constant smartphone documentation of an event affects humans in a similar way.

After documenting a concert on a cell phone, the human brain:

  • 1) Forms fewer, and less clear, detailed, lasting memories of the event
  • 2) Recalls memories of the event with less accuracy and clarity

than that of the technology-free concertgoer.

This is due to a process called cognitive offloading — taking a cognitive shortcut to reduce the amount of information processing your brain needs to do. The smartphone acts as a transactive memory system — an extension of the mind — through which the concert memory is stored in something external to the brain: in this case, the smartphone.

Collective ritual experiences becoming more individualized and profane as a result of smartphone technology is just one example of social media overuse undermining the path to the sacred.

Social Media & Elevation

Another aforementioned road to the Z dimension is elevation: feeling “uplifted” by an act of selflessness or virtue, and wanting to perform similarly.

Research has found that regular social media users not only are more narcissistic and behave more selfishly than less frequent users, but time spent using social media correlates with more narcissistic behavior, in part because individuals use social media as a means for validation and self-affirmation. Elevation could potentially remedy this, but information overload can make elevation elusive.

To be moved by an act of altruism or virtue — to the point of wanting to emulate it — requires, at the least, focus on the act. This can happen, but only when one is focusing on a single cognitive task at a time (i.e. concentrating one’s full attention on observing an act of charity.) But, for social media users and millennials, that’s increasingly unlikely. In the past decade, technology users have become more likely to “multitask” — to attempt to perform two or more tasks at once.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we’ve become good at multitasking, but, on a neurological level, this is a myth: the human brain can’t multitask.

What the human brain can do is rapidly switch focus between a series of different tasks. But doing so has cognitive consequences. Neuroscience research shows that transitioning between tasks repeatedly decreases mental performance and productivity, increasing the time it takes to complete tasks, the amount of mistakes made in the tasks, and the time it takes to refocus on each subsequent task.

An exaggerated visualization of “multitasking.”

Modern-day elevation isn’t impossible to achieve, but, as it often comes unexpectedly (when you randomly come across an uplifting act), it takes a conscious, deliberate effort to step back and focus your undivided attention on something.

The optimal mental state for an elevation experience would be what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow state. In flow state, a person is completely engrossed in an activity, immersed in a feeling of energized focus, and everything else seems to fall away. The individual loses a sense of time, and awareness of one’s physical needs and surroundings, and performs at their best, feeling their best.

Ironically, social media sites have been found to induce symptoms of flow state. (If you’ve ever felt so engrossed in your Facebook feed that you disregard your surroundings, didn’t hear your mother call for dinner, and hours pass by like minutes, this should come as no surprise.) This hyper-focused, flow state could lead to a powerful elevation or awe experience, but our multi-tasking often prevents that.

A cartoon depicting social media addiction.

Neuroscience research tells us that when an individual receives positive feedback on social media, it stimulates the brain’s “reward center” — the nucleus accumbens — not unlike how gambling, sexual arousal and euphoriant drugs do. This brain region plays a significant role in addiction, as individuals crave more of the pleasure reaped from these rewarding experiences.

In this way, social media hijacks people’s minds to constantly return for a potential reward and dopamine rush. Google Design’s former ethicist has written extensively about how social media sites are designed to exploit our minds’ weaknesses. In 2015, a computer programmer with a background in Neuroscience founded a company called Dopamine Labs. Named after the neurotransmitter that plays an important role in reward, pleasure, and addiction, the company writes computer code to essentially program addiction. It markets its services to developers, designing apps that provoke a neurological response to keep the user hooked.

Although most companies don’t broadcast their capacity to addict, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are no stranger to these tactics. The Dopamine Labs founder provided the example of Instagram withholding likes and then delivering them in a big burst, explaining:

“There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.”

Social Media & Awe-Inducing Experiences

Let’s examine another potential road to the Z dimension: the awe induced by perceiving something vast, too vast to be accommodated by a person’s current mental structures. It’s hard to have a deep, profound, awe-inspiring experience punctuated by intermittent social media-refreshing (as we know from our discussion of multi-tasking).

Louis C.K. once described this sentiment in a speech about driving his car, taking in the profundity of a beautiful song, and starting to feel a wave of sadness and loneliness.

Louis C.K’s speech about cell phones on Conan.

C.K. notes that his first instinct is to send out “hi” texts to 50 different people, to try to get rid of this feeling, but he doesn’t; instead, he lets the sadness hit him and he just pulls over and weeps. He remarks that this sadness is beautiful — it’s poetic — we’re lucky to have moments of experiencing emotion so deeply. After this expression of sadness, he says he feels a rush of happiness, of “happiness antibodies” rushing in to meet the sadness, and feels lucky to be alive and experiencing such strong emotion.

When we start to feel profound, extreme emotions — especially negative ones — we often reach for our phones, but doing so can put a damper on the complete, raw, nuanced emotional experiences that make us human. The argument is: when constantly refreshing, scrolling, chatting, you’re preventing emotional extremes on both ends, locking yourself in a constant state of profane, lukewarm, just-barely-satisfied, emotionally dulled existence.

A common source of the awe-inducing vastness that leads to emotionally-heavy, Z-dimension experiences, as previously mentioned, is the Great Outdoors. It’s probably not hard to imagine how smartphone use can undermine sacred outdoor experiences, if you’ve had any experience hiking with a companion glued to their smartphone.

Fog drifts through a grand, mystical canyon.

It’s hard to feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, gazing out at a canyon, when you’re getting notifications by-the-second of the likes on your recent Instagram pic of it. It’s hard to realize that your personal concerns — like your Instagram likes — are trivial in the grand scheme of things, when they’re flashing on your screen every second, in the midst of this canyon. Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to feel overtaken by a sense of unity and oneness with others when you’re constantly being reminded of your egocentric concerns.

A visualization of Instagram push notifications.

One of the most empathy and elevation-inducing aspects of outdoor experiences, for me, is sharing the beauty of vast, natural landscapes with other people, sans technology use. Experiencing the awe and self-transcendence of natural grandeur alongside others has the potential to produce tremendous bonding. It can lead to feeling of closeness, empathy, openness, and trust, but gadgets can encumber the formation of these emotional connections. Empirical research has found that the mere presence of smartphones among groups of people decreases inter-group feelings of trust, empathy, and closeness, and can reduce conversation quality.

A visualization depicting how smartphone use can separate — rather than unite — people.

On aforementioned Utah trip, which spanned a week, I let my phone die on the second day. Of the 35 other trip attendees, I hadn’t met anyone more than once prior to the trip, and most I had never spoken to. There were so many still moments, gazing out at a sunset, or the Colorado river, or a naturally-formed rock wall, alongside someone I’d hardly spoken to, when it would’ve been a lot easier to pull out a phone and scroll through Facebook or pretend to text someone. We do it all the time, in all sorts of other places in our lives — but to sit with someone you don’t know all that well, without Internet, in the midst of some great natural wonder, and to find some ground to form conversation over (or just embrace silence), I think that’s how true human connection is formed.

There were also times, especially early on, when I had Louis C.K. moments. That “wow, I’m 2000 miles away from my family, with people I don’t know very well, and no means of contacting anyone, and I’m alone.” Lacking a working cell phone meant my self-esteem took a hit; I felt, this is who I truly am, without my social media accounts for people to stalk before meeting me or amusing things from the internet to aid conversation. This is what I am at my core. But, when you’re stripped down to your bare bones like that, you realize that’s what’s important: how you can interact with people and relate; the knowledge and passion you have to share; how you can make people laugh, when you’re taken out of your element, away from culture and your technology and all that you know, and you’re just that raw self that exists under everything. Realizing that was initially discomforting — I felt like my raw self needed work — but that created room for growth.

Sunrise over a canyon.
A bonfire beside a lake on a starry night.

As the trip progressed, I began to feel more comfortable with my core self, and appreciated the authenticity of the other attendees. Particularly, I realized the universal importance of laugher and of music — being able to make people laugh, and to stir in people that remarkable feeling that only arises from a gentle voice and the soft sound of guitar strumming underneath the crackle of a bonfire. The happiness antibodies came rushing in, indeed, and the warmth of camaraderie that I felt later on in the trip far eclipsed the initial loneliness and insecurity.

I spent the past summer working at an outdoor education-focused children’s camp, and I had this co-worker who, every Thursday, would take his campers deep down into this corner of a rock cave. And, every week, in this corner, he’d tell everyone to turn their headlamps off and see how long we could stay completely silent. He’d say:

“I want you all the appreciate the absoluteness of this darkness and silence. There might not be another time in your lives with darkness this total. There’s usually some little trace of light somewhere. Try to notice all the little sounds we make beneath everything, of tiny motions, of our breathing.”

We attempt this, and, at some point, every time, some kid turns his light on — complains, maybe even cries — because darkness this absolute frightens him. It’s the square thinking the third dimension is Hell. The blinding sunlight that initially burns the cave prisoner’s eyes. The darkness is so absolute, it transcends the capacity of this camper’s mental structures for processing daytime, eyes-open darkness. And that’s alien, that’s scary, that’s uncomfortable — but that’s when you grow. Inevitably, every week, there’s also a camper who insists we keep our headlamps off after the dark, silent moment is over, because the sheer darkness of a cave is so beautiful and profound. Sometimes, there’s even a camper who says that the total cave darkness was the highlight of the week, at our Thursday night campfire reflections.

Darkness gradually filling a cave.

An attempt at utter silence and darkness — eliminating the constant buzz of sounds and flashing of lights that fill our worlds — is essentially what meditation is.

Have you ever tried sitting awake, eyes closed, thinking about nothing, or about one unchanging color or image, for minutes at a time? Listening to sounds you usually don’t notice under the hubbub of daily existence — like your breathing? Sending each tiny thought or idea or worry away as it comes, trying to embrace the sheer tranquility and vastness of nothingness? (If you haven’t, this would be a good exercise to try now, for the sake of understanding this.)

If it’s difficult to meditate, to constantly dismiss those mile-a-minute thoughts, it must be difficult to fully embrace, to be immersed in, to be subsumed by — a vast and profound emotional experience with mile-a-minute notifications to check, news feeds to refresh, Snapchat stories through which to live vicariously. Meditation has been proven to have enormous mental health benefits: increased focus, heightened empathy and trust, self-esteem, memory, and decreased anxiety, among others. Suppose you could reap all those benefits if only you could turn off that constant stream of thoughts interrupting your experience. (But, alas, there’s no switch to pull to do that.)

A visualization of mobile Instagram newsfeed scrolling.
A visualization of a stream of Facebook notifications.

You, similarly, might desire self-transcendence; feelings of oneness, wonder or joy; all the merits of peak experiences; the ascent to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s a stream of instantaneous notifications indefinitely blocking your awe-inducing experience, but, fortunately, there’s a way to turn that stream off. You can make the choice to unplug.

No, not throw away your cell phone and deactivate all social media profiles. But take conscious control of how they’re affecting you. You can take small steps. Disable push notifications on certain apps; occasionally put your phone on airplane mode; get an app that tracks your phone use by app, amount of time spent, and number of daily pick-ups, and lets you set limits (like Moment or RealizD Pro); get an app that blocks addicting apps, websites, or the entire internet to boost productivity (like Freedom) — or do it yourself through “Restrictions” in Apple Settings; get the app that lets you grow virtual trees — and plants actual trees! — for time spent off your phone (Forest); get a meditation app (like Calm); get the app that makes you take a few deep breaths before opening up your most addictive social media apps — developed by Dopamine Labs! — (Space); get the app that mocks social media, which is kind of hilarious (Binky); tuck your most addictive social media apps into a folder away from your home screen; delete addictive apps and resolve to only use the sites on the computer; log out of your most addictive apps, etc.

Each person will have a different solution, which is why I suggest reflecting on what your individual problem might be and taking time to craft a plan that fits your needs.

The bottom line is: Z dimension growth, in its many forms, isn’t impossible for active smartphone users to achieve in this smartphone-dominated era, but it does take a deliberate sort of consciousness, of vigilance, of discipline, to be open to it in a technology-infused world.

I hope this essay has helped to provide you with a notion of that. I believe in our recovery. And it starts now.



Aspiring human.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store