Does your screen time make you happier?

A few months ago I moved my phone charger out of the bedroom so the phone is not there when I wake up. I also deleted social media apps from my devices. As a family, we decided to create more screen-free time and space in our lives.

The wifi now switches off automatically at certain times during the day, for example when the kids come home from school, and during homework and meal times – which was really annoying until we got used to it.

The reason for the change was that being connected to the internet 24/7 did not make me happy. Looking at the behaviour of my children after they spent time on their devices confirmed that screen time and happiness don’t often go together.

My wife and I decided that more screen-free time should also be applicable to us. As Robert Fulghum said, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you”.

Taking this decision was difficult but it was nothing compared to implementing it. Not always having my smartphone nearby created all sorts of challenges, but it was also a new and positive experience.

It is interesting how much you see and hear when you’re not focussed on a screen (or thinking about what you have just read on your device). What is most important to me is that it feels so good. I hope my children will benefit from sitting less often behind screens and spending more time with family and friends.

If you want to learn more about this topic (even though you will have to use a screen to do so…), have a look at the Ted Talk below ‘Why our screens make us less happy’. Apparently, Steve Jobs’ children were not allowed to use an iPad.

In a thought-provoking Conversations podcast, Richard Fidler interviews social researcher David Gillespie about the addictive nature of social media and the teenage brain. Lastly, the website of the Australian eSafety Commissioner contains a wealth of information and tips about having safe and positive experiences online.

Decluttering our homes and lives

Accumulating possessions is not always associated with an improvement in wellbeing. It can actually lead to stress and health issues.

On the other hand, giving, donating and getting rid of stuff are usually described as positive experiences. Decluttering homes even has health benefits.

A new Netflix series, Tidying up with Marie Kondo, brings a powerful message across: organising our homes and offices comes with rewards.

Marie Kondo, dubbed the Japanese Mary Poppins, creates happiness by helping people throw away stuff they don’t need and organise their belongings. As a result relationships seem to improve and families live happier together.

The concept is of course not new, as professional organisers, unclutter clinics and clean-up blogs have been around for a while. But there is something appealing about watching this show.

Whether it is a desire for simplicity, a need to create organised spaces to think, work and live, or just guilt reduction, the slowly disappearing clutter towards the end is satisfying.

Marie Kondo makes decluttering homes, and lives, a fun activity. But she does something else. By asking whether objects spark joy she reminds us about our priorities and what life is all about – something we occasionally forget.

What really matters

Dying is an intense sad process, but there is another side to it as well: people often take the opportunity to reflect.

As a doctor I have the privilege to talk to people who are nearing the end of their lives. A while back I asked one of my wonderful 85-year old patients what had been most important in her life.

She didn’t need much time to think, and said: “That has to be my family, doctor, and the move from England to Australia with my husband.” Her loved ones, and the journey that changed her life – she couldn’t have been more concise.

I asked myself: what matters most? I found three inspiring life lessons.

#1: Achieving childhood dreams

Randy Pausch was a professor in computer science who died of pancreatic cancer. He became well-known after he gave a lecture titled The last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. It went viral on YouTube.

In the video below Pausch gives another, shorter, inspiring speech to university students about how to live your life well by nourishing relationships with others and expressing passion. Pausch died 68 days after giving the speech.

#2: Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Apparently Steve Jobs asked this question everyday, and it has become a guiding principle for many. Like Randy Pausch, Jobs was looking for passion: “There is no reason not to follow your heart,” he says in one of his famous speeches. Jobs reminds us that all negatives, like fear of embarrassment or failure, just fall away in the face of death.

#3: Begin with the end in mind

One way of following your heart is to begin with the end in mind. This principle is very similar to Steve Jobs’ philosophy, and it’s habit two of Covey’s famous 7 habits of highly effective people:

(It) is based on imagination – the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.

A patient once told me that he and his wife took their four-wheel drive and caravan five times on a trip around Australia. I said I’d love to do the same one day but that five times was a hard act to follow. He looked at me and replied: “Aim for it.”

When I listen to my terminally ill and elderly patients, they remind me – like Pausch, Jobs and Covey – to keep on trying, have fun and be there for others.

Predicting what makes us happy

Is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Most people will answer ‘no’ to this question. Yet we often want what we don’t have. Against better judgement, we sometimes hope that happiness lives on the other side of the fence too.

The commercial world thrives on selling happiness: it’s not the new phone, car or dress, but the dream of a better life that’s on offer. And we all fall for it, thinking that somehow we will be happier after the purchase.

The reason for this is that we’re not good at predicting what makes us happy. Unfortunately, happiness as a result of a treat, purchase, or even winning the lottery, is short-lived – probably less than three months. Spending money on others makes us happier than spending it on ourselves, according to a study published in Science magazine.

Interestingly, happy people enjoy themselves without expensive treats. One happiness study showed that it’s the simple, cost-free things in life that matter, like listening to music, reading a book, going swimming, or enjoying a hobby.

What makes you happy? There’s a good chance that it’s an inexpensive, relaxing activity, or an act of kindness.

Don’t wait until tomorrow

Over the years I’ve known several people who became ill shortly after their retirement. I remember one hardworking business man who suddenly died after he signed off. He left his wife behind with the tickets for their world trip.

Our emigration to Australia is part of the our dream. My wife and I feel privileged that we have been able to find a beautiful spot where we are truly happy. I try to teach my kids to do what they love and to enjoy the journey.

It’s a recurring theme in discussions with patients: how to give passion a place in your life, now, not later. It is easy to do and can be as simple as blocking off a few designated hours every week.

But sometimes I forget. It’s easy to lose myself in daily routines, busy schedules and tight deadlines. Everyday business sometimes seems more important than my dreams. There are always plenty of reasons why not to do something I’m passionate about.

So I remind myself, like some businesses do by writing their mission and vision on the wall. It can be a message on my home screen or a piece of paper on the mirror.

What change in your life makes you happier? Whatever it is, start today. Don’t wait.

Participation – the secret sauce of health care

The previous Christmas parties at work were always nice. We sat down and were served a nice dinner. There was nice live music. We were fed and entertained – what more can you ask for?

Last year our management team took a different approach. We were not fed. We had to prepare our own food: Select the toppings for our pizza and bake it in the wood fired pizza oven. We waited patiently in line. We were the chefs.

There was no band. We had to sing ourselves – on stage. We were the entertainment. There were sumo suits; there was a gladiator ring. It was the best Christmas party ever.

Participation is fun. It creates a sense of ownership, responsibility and improves team spirit. That’s why social media works. Social media empowers. We have become participants instead of spectators.

This is how it should be in health care. I love it how some of my patients take ownership of their health. They are actively engaged, do research, ask questions and understand their treatment. As a doctor I’m not telling them what to do, I’m just part of their team.

Participation is the secret sauce. As health care professionals we must do everything we can to encourage participation.