People are increasingly addicted to online distractions, so we need to reboot our human connections, says Kamal Sarma
When the former monk and venture capitalist Kamal Sarma lost his prematurely born baby girl when she was three days old, he found himself taking a train to Redfern to buy drugs to help him cope with his depression.
He eventually turned his life around thanks to support from nurses at RPA Hospital and by using techniques he had learned as a child when training to be a monk.
Earlier this year he spoke to NSWNMA delegates at annual conference about resilience and addiction, and his work with executives, training them to build connections and find mental balance in their lives.
We are now so overwhelmed by emails, texts and social media applications that our health is suffering, Sarma says.
“These online distractions mean that 56 per cent of us don’t get enough sleep, 62 per cent don’t get enough exercise.
“One in five people tick a box to say they’re depressed and 29 per cent of us, almost one in three, are obese. And 22 per cent of us are exhausted.
“There is a huge industry out there that’s making you scroll. It knows what to do. It knows how you behave. There are really smart people trying to hack your brain.”
While we might feel like we are making connections online, our addictive relationship to our screens is preventing us from making real connections and finding mental rest. In fact, Sarma says studies routinely find that “the people who have the best quality of life are monks and nuns”.
“They don’t eat that much. They’re not online shopping. They’re not updating their Facebook, but they have the highest levels of joy, kindness and compassion, everything … that makes life worth living; not just existing but living.”
Connection leads to resilience
Sarma outlined the four key levels of connection that he says are key to mental resilience.
“The first thing we need is to connect with ourselves. A lot of the time we’re disconnected from ourselves. That’s when we eat too much. We drink too much, we watch too much Netflix.”
The second kind of connection is with other people “We need to belong in a tribe and when we’re not in a tribe … it’s scary. We evolved in tribes and we need to have that tribe strong.”
“We also need to connect with our purpose. A lot of people are disconnected from our purpose.” While Instagram messages suggest that our purpose is to own a Gucci bag or other commodities, purpose is about finding the kind of work that gives our lives meaning.
The fourth connection we need to foster is “with nature”.
But rather than true connection, we are being trained to find false connection and rewards on our phones.
The data, Sarma says, shows that “people check their phones 150 times a day”.
Australian research conducted by Deloitte found that 80 per cent of people check their phones within an hour of waking and 35 per cent of people check within the first five minutes.
“Most kids can swipe before they can walk and talk…my belief is that we’re about to see a tsunami of addiction.
“We are the first generation of adults to go through our lives with mobile phones. We are raising the first generation of kids that are going through their childhood with mobile phones and we have no idea what that’s doing to their brains.”
The benefits of a digital blackout
Kamal says slot machine research shows that the addictive nature of our phones and social media applications is due to the intermittent rewards they give us.
“When you get a like, when you get a hit, when you get all those kinds of things, they make your brain go ‘Bing’ and say ‘You’re still important’.”
But this constant stream of input is making us stressed and contributing to heart disease, the leading cause of death.
Nurses, Sarma noted, already face intense periods of mental load on long shifts working late at night, and our bodies aren’t designed for these frequent long periods of stress.
So how do you thrive? “Use it, but don’t let it use you.” Ask yourself if you are using the applications or if they are using you.
We need to learn how to truly switch off, Sarma says: “Learn how to rest your mind, not just numb it. Your mind craves rest. When you numb your mind versus resting your mind, it can feel very similar. But when you’re watching Game of Thrones, you’re not resting your mind.”
Build connections and be present with people, he says: that means no phones on the dinner table, in the meeting room, or in your hand when talking to people. Use the phone’s ‘grayscale’ function. “Turn off all the [phone’s] colours and watch what happens to your addiction.”
In his work training executives, Sarma says when he asks them to go on digital blackouts for about 14 to 15 hours a day, their “productivity is going up … they’re getting better sleeps at night and they are actually connecting with their partner and their kids”.
“If you’re getting up at night, if you’re getting exhausted at night, three hours before you go to bed don’t look at a screen.”
Finally, he urges us to “reclaim micro moments of calm and solitude. When you’re at the lift you don’t need to check your phone … when you’re at the stop sign, don’t walk across the road looking at your phone”.
Listen to The Shift Ep. 96: Digital Resilience: Thriving in a digitally transforming world