If there's one thing the U.S. economy is booming in, it's the production of mass quantities of onlookers. We have become a nation of spectators, zoning into the glow of digital and high-def screens, cocooned in entertainment centers, oblivious to the sun in the sky, the breeze in the trees, and the mandate in our bones to be more than observers to our own lives. Like the Chauncey Gardiner character in Being There, we like to watch.
Some, hypnotized by their smart phones, step off curbs into oncoming traffic and wind up in the ER, the latest "text-walking" case. The other day I saw a woman, head down in her phone, sauntering through a red light on a major street while dozens of cars waited. She was clueless that she was a walking bowling pin. Others are so enamored by "Mafia Wars" or "Grand Theft Auto" that significant others are reduced to arcade props. And plenty of others are convinced that the only entertainment is what comes from the giant screen in the living room.
The screens are in charge, and that means we're not. This would have made a great "Twilight Zone" episode if Rod Serling was still with us, the gradual loss of "agency," as the psychologists call the ability to act, which we'll extend to actual moving of limbs. We see some of the side effects in growing childhood obesity and a generation of kids who don't go outdoors, as Richard Louv writes about in "Last Child in the Woods."
For adults, too much watching and not enough participating can create a state very close to learned helplessness, a condition which can be set off by loss of control and which makes you less willing to act. You get out of the habit of following your curiosity or initiating activities you think up. Sure, there are lots of interesting things on our screens, but a steady diet of watching trains us to be professional audience members. Better leave the living up to others -- the stars with the production values, the experts, the pros. It's as if life is an event you buy at Ticketmaster and sit through till the final act.
As bewitching as those screens are, being borderline inanimate doesn't really make us feel that good. There's the boredom -- your brain itching for something more. You may feel like a lump, a child, or a number at the service of whatever's on the screen. That's your crucial autonomy need not taking well to being controlled. When the choices are not really choices or your choices, the opposite of connection can come out of your connectivity, alienation. The University of Rochester's Edward Deci, who has written extensively on the need for autonomy, says we have two reactions to being controlled -- compliance and defiance, both of them equally subjugating and that don't allow us to express our authentic self.
The constant filter of the screens removes us from the visceral experience of our lives and keeps us on the sidelines, when our brains want to get in the game. We're not designed to watch. We're built to participate and satisfy needs that demand self-determined action -- from pursuing activities that make us feel free and competent to those that connect us with real, live people and fulfill our social animal mandate.
Brain cells that stay active continue to grow and build in strength. Cells that don't get enough signals from the outside world die off. Dendrites, the conduits between brain neurons that keep information flowing, shrink or vanish altogether if they're not stimulated with new input. Active learning and physical exercise increase dendrite networks and boost the brain's regenerating capacity, known as plasticity.
When you're under the spell of screens, you also miss out on a central vehicle for increasing happiness: experiences. You wind up living vicariously through the experiences of others on your screens. Writing off experiences shuts off the most effective way of generating the positive events that go into telling you whether you like your life or not. Experiences connect us with others and tap authentic places within ourselves, which is why they're so critical. They satisfy your need to need to explore, grow and express your need to be more than a seat-holder.
In traditional cultures, it's common for people to know how to dance, sing or dabble in an art form, to be able to entertain themselves. Many Balinese, for instance, can do a traditional dance or play an instrument. Our specialties run to microwave popcorn popping. As the screens invade, cultures seem to move from the participant column to spectating, in the process losing leisure skills. "If you don't have any skills, what do you do?" asks Seppo Iso-Asola, a leading researcher in the role that leisure plays in health. "You turn the TV on."
Luckily, you're not stuck with the programming served up. It is possible to make your own entertainment -- and you have to if you want to avoid an absentee life and the brain of a sea urchin. I met a bunch of people who are doing just that in the course of "Don't Miss Your Life," my new book on the skills of participant engagement. Take the several dozen folks who gather every Sunday to sing in the Golden Bridge Choir in Hollywood. They've learned that, even if they don't have a record deal, they're still entitled to make a joyful noise.
No matter your ability, you can sing in this recreational choir, whose eclectic repertoire ranges from folk to Caribbean and African numbers. I had a chance to sing with them, and the experience was powerful. As my voice joined dozens of others in multi-part harmony, I felt myself leaving the mortal plane. People in the group say singing in the choir is the most important thing they do all week.
"There's something about expressing an emotion that's healing on some level. You feel good," says Sheila Gross, a psychotherapist and choir regular. "There has to be joy, spirit and a sense you're part of something bigger" besides simply working, she adds. It's DIY inspiration.
To shift from onlooker to participant, opt out of following what's on the menu and create one yourself. Use your screens to help research activities you'd like to try in the experiential world. The act of participating in self-chosen activities puts you in charge of your life, and your brain likes it that way. You'll feel the rush of autonomy even before you leave the door and the power to initiate more forays when you return. When you're determining the content of your life, it feels like you're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. Because you are.