December 1, 2013

There is No App for Happiness: An Interview with Max Strom. ~ Kelly Prentice

Image by © LUONG THAI

Happy—it’s what everyone says they want.

As in brimming with purpose and connected to our friends and loved ones.

Yet, most of us know almost nothing about how to find happiness, says yoga teacher, speaker and author Max Strom. Strom has become a voice for personal transformation in our time. In his new book, There Is No App for Happiness: How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience, he illustrates how technology is rapidly shifting the way we relate to one another. His message? If we don’t pay attention, our obsession with virtual reality experiences such as Facebook, texting and TV could rob us of real happiness.

I sat down with the master teacher recently to inquire about his own experience with happiness.

What prompted you to write about this topic? Did you see a loss of happiness in your own life or mostly in others?

Strom:  Mostly in others. When people started sending texts, I remember asking, “Why are you sending a text?” and someone would give a half baked answer and I’d ask, “Why don’t you just call her?” They weren’t in a different time zone and it wasn’t just a quick message. I didn’t understand why, if you care about someone, you would continue a conversation by text, when you could pick up the phone and call each other?

I thought it was something that would pass quickly or only kids did it. But now, when I am traveling through airports, 75 percent of the people have this blank stare on their face as they’re looking at something in their hand. Even more troubling, I see young people sitting in a group around a table together, and they are all conversing through text with some other people at some other table somewhere where nobody’s facing each other.

Our young people are developing a kind of Asperger’s Syndrome, which includes an inability to make eye contact, read nonverbal cues and to make real friendships. That’s what prompted me to write it.

I have noticed less intimacy in my own life over the past decade, as texting and Facebook exploded. It makes quick communication convenient. Do you think people have gotten lazy with their communication?

Strom:  Yes. But mostly I think it’s that age-old analogy of the science project, how you can kill frogs by putting  them in water and turning the heat up very gradually, so they don’t realize they are being boiled to death and don’t leap out. I think people haven’t stepped back to realize that what we are doing is slightly insane.

You have to go to the root of things. Why do we do what we do? What do we want? If we want intimacy and we want happiness (Everybody says they do.), then how do we go about getting it? We have to look at our actions and say, “Are these actions supporting what I want?” A text message is not intimate. An email is not intimate.

The statistics say that humans communicate 90 percent nonverbally. I think that’s an important statistic for our time. It means that whenever we communicate with text, we are communicating with only 10 percent of ourselves. That’s why I think our culture is starving for intimacy.

You write, “What everyone really wants is to be happy, fulfilled, connected to others and brimming with purpose—and for this, I believe that technology is close to irrelevant.” That is a bold statement. Do you think others will disagree?

Strom: I’m sure people will disagree. But if you look at the facts, as we are having this technological explosion with information technology growing exponentially, we are becoming a more medicated society. I don’t judge whether people are happy or not by what they say, if there is a poll taken. I look more at the medication use, because I think that’s a more accurate indicator.

I’ve been writing about the overmedication of society for 10 years now, and since the beginning I’ve watched the statistics skyrocket. It’s now one out of four women who are taking anti-anxiety or antidepressants in the United States. And this is growing. In Saudi Arabia I understand now it’s 50 percent. We are medicating ourselves en masse. Now, I know that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can be necessary. Thank goodness we have them for those who have genetic propensities or certain chemical imbalances, but I strongly don’t believe that’s one quarter of the population of our women and about one fifth the population of our men.

I believe that what’s happening is that when people log off of their electronic media, they feel lonely, they feel bored, they feel anxious, and they don’t know why. They don’t know what to do. So doctors are more than willing to write a prescription. It’s easy. You just take a pill.

As I say in my book, that kind of logic would seem insane when it comes to your car. If you are driving your car and your warning light flashes on your dashboard, that means that you are running out of oil and you need to pull over within 60 seconds or your engine is going to burn up. The answer is not to drive to the hardware store, buy some wire cutters, climb under your dashboard and cut off the wire to the light.

I understand what you are saying about finding the root cause, but how do you approach someone with that suggestion, when it is so easy to take a pill and feel better?

Strom: I think the answer is to use metaphors or analogies. You can point out to someone that this anxiety or depression they are feeling isn’t coming out of nowhere. These are temporary manifestations of an imbalance. People need to learn skills to deal with adversity and negative circumstances.

I mean, if you look at the special forces of the Navy Seals, if they are uncomfortable in the field while they are on an assignment, they don’t pop antidepressants. They learn to deal with adversity. There are skills that any human being can learn, through breathing practices, through meditation.

Sometimes when people hear that breathing can help with emotions, it completely stuns them. “How can breathing affect my emotions?” Yet, women who have been through labor and birth can attest that breathing during birth helps them a) not panic b) decrease the pain and c) find focus. For some reason we haven’t connected the dots. Breathing isn’t only helpful in childbirth. It can help anyone decrease physical pain, find focus and calm in difficult circumstances.

Tell me about the 10 years when you didn’t cry. Does this relate to your chapter, “Men and Yoga” and how most men are taught from a young age to suppress emotion? How did yoga transform this?

Strom: The area I grew up in was mostly British, and in that culture it was common for boys to abhor the idea of crying in public, showing any weakness or fear. In my household, both my mother and my father indirectly talked about the suppression of negative emotions. So I grew up with what I call a “suit of armor” on. I was very good at withstanding physical pain and also emotional pain. But I was not very demonstrative in other ways. When we learn to suppress emotion, we often suppress positive emotions as well.

In my 20s I realized at one point that I hadn’t cried in a long time. I went to a really sad movie and everyone in the audience was crying. My face was totally dry. I started thinking, “I wonder if this is a problem? I feel sad, but there are no tears.” It was from my training. But I didn’t think about it too much. No one ever talked about it.

Once I started practicing hatha yoga, particularly with deep breathing, every day after class I’d involuntarily have tears running down my face. No one could see. But something else happened with those tears—I felt the armor crack. What I mean by that is I felt better every day. I became a happier person. I realized that holding in negative emotions, storing them for 30 years, was contributing to my own somewhat depressive nature, and that’s what contributed to my own poor choices.

Once I released them and found out that it didn’t destroy me, I became happier, and I also became a less needy person…I started feeling like that most of the time. Then I knew I’d struck gold.

When you share the three courses of action for people to find happiness, you call them imperatives. Without them, where do you think we are headed as a society?

Strom: Within the American borders, I think we are headed toward physical health crises and mental and emotional health crises, as far as I can see. In 2006, one out of 10 women were taking antidepressants and, in 2012, one out of four were taking it. That’s a huge spike, it’s not a gradual change. At what point do we say that this is a problem? Maybe even a crises. This is why I think these are imperatives, they’re not steps, they’re not keys, they’re not agreements.

What are the three imperatives?

Strom: The first one is we have to study ourselves a little bit. We have to know what makes us tick, who we are, what in the world makes us happy, why we are doing what we’re doing. If we don’t know, we are wandering around in the dark essentially.

The second one is we have to stop living like we are immortal. I believe that we have to realize that we have a completely different language for time and our life.  We say, “Our life is precious,” but on the other hand, “I have time to kill.” Our society more and more is spending their life span on time killers, on entertainment, and entertainment is not happiness. I think our society now is having trouble distinguishing between the two. If you knew you had one year to live, I don’t think you’d spend it on four hours of watching TV a day (the American average), two hours of video games and about two hours on social media. You wouldn’t do it. So I think the second imperative is understand that every second of your time is a second of your lifespan.

The third imperative is the most foreign to some because most people think of exercise just as something you do to lose weight or keep your heart in shape. And so many people exercise while they are watching TV. I strongly suggest that instead of watching TV, pay attention to what you are doing and include a breathing regime within your movement. Even if it’s weight lifting or running, include a breathing practice, because that is what’s going to calm your nervous system while you’re working out. That’s what’s going to help you sleep better and help you end anxiety and lift you out of depression.

How do you define happiness?

Strom: I define happiness as the daily experience of a meaningful life.

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Assistant Editor: Melissa Horton/Editor: Bryonie Wise

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Kelly Prentice