How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

This Week in Upgrades: January 16

Hello, friend. I’m running behind today. It’s been a normal, full workday for me. Did you get Martin Luther King Jr Day off? If so, I hope it’s been a reflective and restful holiday.

Here are the most interesting things I came across this week…

Life’s much better with plants in your home. Here’s how to do it without ending up with a pot of dead branches.

Why are people ticklish?

The ongoing conversation about who gets to be an expert on cuisines from certain countries and cultures.

People who swear have been shown to be more honest. (That doesn’t mean they’re more moral).

Antibiotic resistance is getting worse. I feel like nobody’s really talking about this?

The world’s eight (8!) richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. Just a little bit of inequality. Hierarchies may be vital to capitalism, but they’re not natural.

What can actually fix inequality? Policy? War?

The historically low amount of global sea ice should be a huge wake up call about the climate (in a long line of wake up calls).

Another wake up call.

A reminder to take studies praising or villainizing a particular food with a grain of salt (yeah, pun definitely intended).

Alaska is incredible.

Have an awesome week!

 

 

 

 

Who Are You Doing It For?

You’ve done it. I’ve done it.

You post something. You say something. You wear something. You buy something. And why did you do it? Not primarily because you’re excited about the thing itself. But because you’re excited about how others will react to you doing it.

The likes. The comments. The praise. The admiration.

You post it, say it, wear it, buy it…because you know it’s got a coolness about it. Some social clout. Some cultural capital. And so you doing whatever it is makes you appear cool or interesting or important by extension. You do it primarily to be seen doing it.

You post a picture at that fly-ass bakery that just opened because you know everyone is going to freak out that you were there. You leave an A+ paper out on the table for the whole period so the rest of the class sees it. You spout off your review about the movie that just released to show everyone you’ve already seen it. You tweet about first-world problems you’re having on vacation like you’re suddenly a local there.

In the age of social media, some people have been able to make a living out of being seen doing things. The people who post travel pictures on Instagram to be seen jetsetting. Who Facebook about eating at the trendiest spot to be seen eating at the trendiest spot. Who “try out” a new product in a YouTube video to be seen using it. They have a reputation of coolness that they get paid for in various ways, because they’re always seen doing the coolest things.

But you needn’t be trying to make a living out of being seen to be a participant. And it’s nothing especially new. Doing things primarily to try to gain status and admiration has been around for a long time. Conspicuous production & consumption seem to be a part of our human nature. Part of the quest to fit in socially and feel liked by others.

We just have more opportunities to do so now than ever before. Instagram has over 600 million active users. That’s a lot of people who can easily post photos and videos in a medium where there’s a temptation to do it to see how many likes and comments you can get.

Are you in an interesting or unusual place?

Did you just see something or someone famous?

Are you doing something exclusive–something others don’t have access or ability to do?

Are you the first to do something?

That could really get a response.

But what if no one saw you do what you’re doing? If no one praised you for it or told you how awesome you are? If you got zero likes or comments? Would you still do it?

How you decide to live and move in the world shouldn’t come down to the things other people will love you for doing. It should be about what you love doing. Things you do because you enjoy them–regardless of what others will think.

If you feel the urge to post a picture or video or status, do it because you feel privileged to experience something that brings you joy. Not because you think others will be impressed. Post it, and then close the app for awhile. Don’t even watch the response come in. The metric of value was that you loved it, not that 100 other people loved you doing it. Maybe don’t even post anything at all.

Do things for you. Not for them.

 

 

 

Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

Keeping the World New

Have you ever felt bored and cramped by routine? Wake up, work, waste time on your phone, do chores, go out, wake up and do it again? Going through the motions feels repetitive and stale. Even food, one of the greatest of all human pleasures, can become the same old same old–familiar fuel to shove down instead of a hedonistic respite of self-care.

When we get stuck in the routine of everyday life, the world begins to feel small, all figured out, and uninspiring. I’ve had weeks where I did essentially the same activities morning to night, spending all my time either at work or at home (which are only a short distance apart). I felt like I was about to go crazy. Have you ever felt like that? What did you do to break free?

For me, I’ve come to value more and more the need to be adventurous and travel. The routine inevitably does get boring and cramped. Choosing to learn new things and explores new places keeps the world new.

This can be as easy as picking up a book or watching a documentary. People have long freed themselves from smallness and sameness through the escapism of books and film. Or, perhaps, find a neighborhood, theater, hiking trail, coffee shop, volunteer center, or other local place that you haven’t checked out yet. You can widen your world by experiencing more of your own community.

And you can definitely widen the horizon of your sense of the world by traveling even farther. Are there places you can take a day trip to or camp at a couple hours away? How about bigger cities that you’ve yet to experience? When your hometown starts to feel like the beginning and end of the whole world because that’s all you’ve seen for weeks on end, you have to physically extend your felt boundary of the world by going beyond your city limits. Travel, perhaps more than anything else, keeps the world new by exposing you to other communities and ways of life that you’re not otherwise being exposed to. Different plants, landscapes, weather, buildings, fashion, art, language, transportation, and food.

And, curiously, when you come back home, your hometown may feel new itself. It has a fresh context thanks to you broadening your horizon of experience. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. Have you ever returned from a vacation and felt like home looked and smelled a little different? What is your home or apartment’s after-vacation smell?  (Hopefully something other than the trash you forgot to take out before you left). What does the view of the sunset look like when you get back?

After vacation, did friends, family, and acquaintances seem a bit different–a little more complex, fascinating, and enjoyable to be around? Or, inversely, did some people seem palpably toxic and in need of being avoided to a degree? Is that primarily because other people changed, or because you did?

The world and all of us in it are a lot more diverse, interesting, and enlightening than we’re aware of most of the time. It’s just that as we get caught up in the bubble of the routine the world in our experience of it starts to get smaller and smaller, and we get sucked into a pattern that oversimplifies and bores. That’s not what life’s supposed to be about.

It can be difficult to avoid the bubble, and perhaps even natural to get encapsulated in it in a culture that is so purposefully routinized. Most Americans, even if they earn vacation time at work, do not take it. We organize time in an endlessly repeating loop of five work or school days (Monday-Friday) and two rest days (Saturday-Sunday). Monday is the deflated, is the weekend seriously already over? day. Wednesday is the wait, it’s only the middle of the week? day. Friday is the woo-hoo, time to go wild and forget about this shit day. Do you know that Friday feeling? What if you could keep that kind of Friday feeling more of the time?

I really think we can by aspiring to be more adventurous at home and abroad. Does that sound a little cheesy? I suppose. But try scheduling some vacations–day trips or weeks away–to break up the endless Monday through Sunday loop. Try breaking up the daily routine by picking up a book, watching a documentary, or grabbing lunch at a new spot instead of filling the day by checking social media every couple minutes and getting the same takeout meal you had a couple days ago. See if it changes the way that you feel and perceive things. I think there’s a good chance it will.

The world is too interesting for same old same old. Be adventurous. Travel near and far. Keep the world new.

 

What is Technology, Exactly?

Cuneiform

The last post, Why this Blog?, was a fresh start for what Upgraded Humans is about: the relationship of people and technology. It’s an imperfect relationship—like teens in the awkwardness of adolescence trying to figure each other out—rather than a harmonious, flourishing one—like a married couple in their golden years. It takes time, understanding, and maturation to get to a relationship with that kind of mutual prosperity. Many of our technological innovations and abilities are relatively immature—as is our understanding of technology.

Thanks to the genius of Marshall McLuhan, we saw that whenever we think about a particular piece of technology, there are four fundamental questions we need to ask to understand how it impacts us as people. What does it extend? What does it make obsolete? What does it revert into? What does it retrieve?

To ask those questions and begin to reflect on the answers, though, requires that we can identify technology in the first place to ask the questions about it. We need to talk about one more question before The Four. What is technology?

We all have a pretty intuitive sense of some things that definitely are technology. We know it when we see it. Smartphones, of course, and related devices like tablets, laptops, and headphones to go with them. We’d also probably think of most of the ways we get around: cars, trains, buses, motorcycles, boats, airplanes, and spacecraft (Well, someday spacecraft. Keep working SpaceX!). And we’d also be quick to include other things that plug into an outlet or have batteries: Hello Kitty waffle irons, hairdryers, microwaves, televisions, Xboxes, lamps, and cameras.

But we might not immediately think of other things like: clothing, tables, weapons, shampoo, prescription medications, musical instruments, books, language, governments, forms of taxonomy and naming, farming, clocks, credit cards, and houses.

Yes, these too are technology. Why? What makes technology, technology? Our good friend Marshall McLuhan has an answer for this also. He used the word media instead of technology, a more communication-centric way of talking about it, but the definition still fits. So what is it?

All forms of technology are human creations that extend or amplify some part of ourselves.

That’s it. Simple, yet profound.

Technology is first and foremost something that humans have created. We make it. It doesn’t grow in the woods. It doesn’t appear out of the heavens. We create it, and modify it, and improve it, and expand it, and sometimes abandon it. Modern English is much different than Egyptian hieroglyphs (though our increasing use of emojis and GIFs is making things a little more similar). Thousands of other languages have arisen and gone extinct well before any of us were born. The current iPhone is much different than the original, music-only iPod, but we could track that evolution from one model to the next. And every smartphone is a particular arrangement of metals, chips, glass, rare earth elements, and other components that would never come together in the form of a phone by the wind or the sea or the tectonic shifts of the earth. We conceived it and we made it.

What technology does is extend or amplify some part of our selves. You probably noticed this is exactly what the first question in The Four Laws of Media asks. You’re brilliant. The best way to begin to understand the effect of a particular technology is to first examine and understand what human ability it extends. Whether it’s a limb, the senses, our brain, or something social between people, every technology is an extension of one or more of the abilities we have.

The wheel or wings—of a bike, car, airplane, or otherwise—extends and amplifies the locomotion of our two feet. We can go faster and farther, and more comfortably so. It’d take you a long, grueling time to walk and swim to France (Unless you live there, of course. If so, bonjour!). Weapons are extensions of our fists, fingernails, and other body parts we might fight with. Shampoo, “age-defying” lotions, first-aid, prescription medications, and other products we put on or inside our bodies, enhance the body’s ability to remove dirt, fight pathogens, heal itself, and perform normal organ functions. Books and notes extend our capacity for memory, organizing our thoughts, articulating long ideas or stories, and sharing them with other people. Musical instruments extend and enhance our singing voice, our sense of melody, and our capacity for self-expression. Naming things extends our capacity to organize and interpret the expansive array of plants, animals, and other things that make up the world around us.

Socially, governments extend our ability to live together by a communal rule of law and shared understanding of the common good. Money extends our ability to assess and exchange value with one another. Telephones, streaming video, and other electronic communication allow us to speak with and view each other across great distances. Industrialized agriculture, refrigeration, and cross-country transportation extend our shared capacity to grow, store, and move the food we all need to eat.

And on and on. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of examples of technology when we understand it properly.

The major complication of technology, and one of the motivations for Upgraded Humans, is that though in the beginning human beings controlled the construction of each of the extensions and enhancements, once they’re made they often begin to control us. That’s where the need for the Four Laws comes in. If we don’t reflect on those questions, particularly if we don’t understand which natural human capacity that a certain technology extends, we’re likely to be nudged in ways that might not be good for us by the technology we were originally the master of.

So a few last questions for now.

How did you end up with a Hello Kitty waffle iron?

What things had you not thought of as technology that you realize are technology based on our definition?

Does thinking about it as technology—as an extension of an ability you have—change the way you see what it does and what kind of power it has?

Does that reveal anything about the power it has over you and the way you need to take back the reigns?

Comment below! Send ideas or pictures of things other people would never think of as technology. And, as always, thanks for reading.