Americans Long for a Chance to Rest, Replenish and Reboot

Whipsawed by Stimuli, Our Attention Is Fraying and Disorders Are Multiplying

By Published on . 3

Some days you have to wonder why they don't just change The New York Times' slogan from "All the news that's fit to print" to "And you thought yesterday's news was bad!"

Car bombs in Iraq. Car bombs in Afghanistan. Coordinated car bomb attacks in Pakistan. And then -- to vary the tempo -- a visit to the funeral of the victim of a car bombing (that gets car bombed).

I'm not saying that's not all news. I'm just saying that I can't stand to read it. And, it turns out, I am not alone.

"People are tired of terrible," says anthropologist-turned-brand-strategist Cheryl Swanson. As a partner in the trend-tracking firm Toniq, she's a keynote speaker at this week's Future Trends, What Matters conference in Key Biscayne, Fla. One of the things she'll be discussing is the spreading phenomenon she's experienced herself: Whenever she reads the Times or watches the TV news, "I want to take drugs."

Jon Stewart is the anti-drug, because he makes the terrible palatable. In print form, Swanson has cancelled her Times subscription in favor of USA Today and the arts-heavy, optimistic New York Sun (where -- do we really have to do full disclosure? -- I write a column).

Anyway, her point is that people feel bad enough already and don't want anything that makes them feel worse. Whence comes this bad-already feeling? Swanson pins it on the mega-trend of the past decade, "Survival of the Fastest."

With all the info coming at us 24/7, "We are processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors," she says. This is a new human task that we haven't had time to adapt to yet -- physically or mentally.

That's why we're getting tech-related health problems, like carpal tunnel, and maybe even mental and neurological problems like attention-deficit disorder. Naturally our attention is fraying -- we are whipsawed by stimuli!

Moreover, with that 400 times more information did not come 400 more hours in a day. So we steal that time from sleep, both deliberately (by working late into the night) and not (by being too wound up to drift off). Hence another big trend: The burgeoning sleep industry, with new pills, pillows and, in the big hotels, even "sleep concierges" all trying to help us get the ZZZs we need.

Another byproduct of trying to pack too much into the day is the erosion of dinnertime. This, of course, is nothing new. In the '60s dinner was (supposedly) 45 minutes long. By the '90s it had shrunk to 15 minutes. But as Swanson's investigators traveled the country, dropping in on real families, they found that the sit-down dinner had evaporated almost entirely. "It is now basically five minutes," says Swanson. "And it's not even sitting down."

Families (or chunks of them) eat standing up around the kitchen counter. When parents are unavailable, kids prepare themselves "latchkey dinners." Long, slow braising is not key.

What will be key in the coming decade, says Swanson, is a new focus on science (as opposed to just technology). In an echo of John F. Kennedy's call to reach the moon, our country will challenge itself again, this time to save the planet. But first ... we have to recover.

Sleep-deprived, anxious and strung-out on Easy Mac, we will use the next 10 years to replenish, Swanson says. We'll do this through yoga, face time (as opposed to Facebook), slow food, more sleep and daydreaming. We'll also enlist the help of more organizers: people and products that can de-clutter everything from our closets to our in-box, leaving only what is manageable and not completely depressing.

Newly rested and happy, we will finally have time to read the paper again!

And by then we may even be out of Iraq.
In this article:

Comments (3)