Fit Life Essentials for Real Life

Your Life on Overdrive–What It Means (Future Shock Part II)


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This is the second of a three part series about the pace of life and how it affects our well-being.  You can check out Part 1 here.

To review: life moves fast these days.  We know this.

But just how fast?  Are we leveling off, or picking up steam?  And so what if the day races by like a runaway train?  Aren’t we used to it?

On some level, I do think we’ve adjusted to a frenetic pace of life.  We’re used to being busy.  At the same time, I believe rapid change is affecting us in ways we don’t fully appreciate.  

Do you ever beat yourself up because you haven’t yet “gotten organized” or your “X” is off track, where “X” is eating, working out, sleep?  And you’re gonna fix that and get it together?  And then everything will be good – you’ll be healthy, buff, and full of energy.

Love, I want you to stop for a moment.  It’s not you.  Let’s ponder our universe, how it affect us, and most important, what we can do about it.

Got Change?

Human beings have been talking about change for thousands of years.  “Change is the only constant,” it’s been said.  Buddhist traditions teach that everything is temporary.      

At the same time, the kinds of change we see today are remarkable.

In the late 1960s, the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about changes that he believed would test human limits to adapt.  He described these changes as leading to “Future Shock” – like culture shock, but at home, on your own turf, and caused by a world that steadily becomes unrecognizable.  He put change into three buckets:  

  1. An increasingly disposable world.  People, places, things, and information come in and out of our lives at a rapid pace.  We move and travel more; we have more temporary stuff; we lose touch with old friends.  Even information is disposable – today’s “knowledge” is outdated tomorrow—kicked to the curb like yesterday’s trash.
  2. Novelty.  Every day, the media and other sources deliver mind-bending, twisted, implausible, or unbelievable stories.  Some of it is welcoming and cool, but much of it is disturbing.
  3. Complexity.  In just about every facet of life, choices have multiplied to the point that previously simple decisions now involve layers of decision-making.  Whether it’s canned tuna, a new dishwasher, or a different kind of workout, there are endless options and varieties to pursue.

Toffler believed that rapid change—as he saw it in the 1960s—was overpowering our ability to process information and adapt. The result:  overstimulation and overwhelm, leading to stress, illness, and maladaptive behaviors.

Before we get into some of the effects of change, let’s look at a few examples in the world of information.

Information Overload

The world of information has changed in some pretty astounding ways.  

Words are the building block of communication.  According to Future Shock, the English language contained about 450,000 usable words in the 1960s.  Half of them probably not have been recognizable to William Shakespeare. 

And now? According to the website Global Language Monitor, the English language passed 1 million words in 2009.

Moving beyond words, consider books. Future Shock said that Europe was producing perhaps 1000 titles per year in the 1500s.  By the 1960s, global production had climbed to 1000 titles per day. 

Today, you can watch estimates of new titles publishing by the second on the Worldometers website (http://worldometers.info/books).  The latest estimates put global book publishing at a pace of more than 6,000 titles per day.

From 1000 titles per year, to 1000 per day, to possibly more than 6000 per day.

How much of this information do we take in?

In the late 1960s, Future Shock reported the average American to “ingest” about 30,000-40,000 words per day from sources like newspapers, television, and radio.  

In our digital world, words have given way to bytes.  According to a 2013 prediction by USC researcher Jim Short, by 2015, traditional and digital media would deliver 74 gigabytes of information per day to the average American consumer daily.  

74 gigabytes is like having 9 DVDs dropped on your doorstep every day.

Information consumed at work was not included!

Of course, having information available isn’t the same as actually reading it.  A consumer may click on a website but read only two paragraphs, watch two minutes of a 20 minute video, or skim her Facebook news feed without giving it her full attention.  

Ok, so only a small fraction gets any real attention, but the full content of all of those information sources is available.  It’s knocking on the door, if you will.  Hey, look over here!  No, check me out!   

Still, the idea of 9 DVDs is sobering.  To even attempt to comprehend the information that flows across our virtual desks in a day, we’d do nothing but read.

Information is just one example in Future Shock, which details similar kinds of turnover in numerous other areas, from technology to careers to even ideas.  All are becoming disposable, according to the book.

The Cost

It’s not so surprising to think that a mountain of change has to have some kind of impact on us.  We have only so much bandwidth.

Everywhere we look, we are asked to process new information and act on it, often under time pressure and with various distractions around us (noises, buzzing, flashing signals).  It all adds up.

Physical Costs

Physically, stimulation taps us on the shoulder.  Every little tap consumes a certain amount of energy in response.

Just as my sweet dog Kenzie will sit up and take notice of a strange noise, our bodies respond to changes in our environment.  This is especially true when the developments are novel or unsettling.  

The stress response engages our bodies in many ways—our eyesight, hearing, digestion, blood pressure, hormones.  Doesn’t it make sense that all these responses could be impactful, over time?

And in fact, change itself is a well accepted factor in increasing the risk of illness.  One of the major predictors of illness in a given year is the extent to which a meaningful life change has occurred. The potential impact of change has been quantified by a well-known “stress inventory” (the Holmes and Rahe Stress scale), which estimates how much 43 life changing events may contribute to stress.

Even seemingly good changes, like retirement, vacation, and outstanding personal achievements, are included as potential stressors.

Emotional Costs

Excessive change also affects us in less tangible ways.  Emotionally, we may feel confused, tired, anxious, tense, or irritable.  

Toffler predicted that uncontrolled change could lead to maladaptive behaviors, from outright denial to uncontrolled nostalgia for days gone by.  Some would become “Super Simplifiers” and turn to unitary theories that “explain everything,” he suggested.

Hmmm … Super Simplifiers.  Doesn’t that capture the tone of political debate today? 

Toffler also predicted that disillusionment with science would become more common (vaccines, anyone?) as people struggled to make sense of their world.  Many would engage in “orgies of self examination and soul searching.”

So What?

Ok, we are immersed in a world of  stimulation, probably more so than ever before in human history.  It’s a source of stress and has the potential to be confusing and counterproductive at best, and downright harmful at worst. 

I tell you this for two reasons.

First, it’s just incredibly helpful to *know* that our days contain these kinds of challenges.  If life is an obstacle course, we’re facing the American Ninja Warrior version.  Knowledge is power.

Second, it’s not all bleak.  There are very real things we can do to keep our world steady and on track amid all the craziness.  In Part III of this series, we’ll go over some of the best tools around for managing change and using it to our advantage.  These tools are essentially the foundation for everything else we want to accomplish—whether losing weight or just managing stress better.    

Then, when change approaches us like an ambiguous stranger in a dark alley, we can respond with warmth, openness, strength, and opportunity.

Love this stuff.

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