Tag Archives: Technology

If urgent, be patient

A couple of years ago, a blog post about life and happiness went viral. It was written by a nurse named Bronnie Ware in New South Wales, Australia. As a nurse, she took care of people with terminal diseases, washing them, feeding them, talking to them. Her work is hard, her days are long. She is the care-taker of people who are about to die. The proximity of their death helps people to reflect and find wisdom. And listening to terminal ill people taught Bronnie a lot about life. She wrote down what she learnt in a blog post.

Five regrets of the dying

It was called: ‘five regrets of the dying’. And the five regrets went like this:

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others wanted
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier
  • And I wish I hadn’t worked so much.

The last regret, coming at such a moment of life when the latest seconds are ticking away, I believe, is one of the most important pieces of wisdom about life and happiness. In short, it goes into one of the fundamental complexities many people are facing: to find work-life balance.

If urgent, please text

New technologies ubiquitous in the 21st century make it even more challenging to find the right balance between work and family or private life. With smartphones and 4G, we can be be in touch with friends or colleagues from the supermarket, queuing for a French fries, or the toilet. I liked to joke that if phone were waterproof, technology would invade the last place where we are free with our thoughts. But apparently – and scarily – there are already at least 13 waterproof phones!

In some working environments – such as consulting, where I spent my working days – it is a natural facet of a service attitude that comes with the job to be available to clients and colleagues outside working hours. Sometimes, with a good dose of exaggeration and self-pity, we joke that we don’t have a problem with work-life balance, because work takes priority anyway. And when we are not available, for a meeting, a conference, or a day off, we typically inform colleagues. Usually, my message goes something like: if you have an urgent question, please send a text. Or in short: if urgent, please text.

Finding the right balance

Striking the right balance is hard. Some of the consequence of an incorrect balance are small: you may come home too late to go to the supermarket, end up tired on the couch for a night, or fail to make plans for the weekend. But some of the potential consequences are a lot more significant. Around 22% of workers experiences extreme stress. 4 out of 10 workers in the US go beyond 50 hours. And burnouts risk to lead to a depression, which is suffered by about one out of six people during their life time. Beyond that, an unhealthy family life is related to marital stress and behavioural problems of children.

The boss can help…

Companies increasingly recognise the problem, either out of the goodness of their heart or because of the realisation of negative impact on staff turnover, sick leave, and productivity. There are many things bosses can do and are doing to increase work-life balance and happiness at work. They can allow part-time working, or flexible working hours, or limit working hours. They can ensure child-care facilities.

Something that would be useful for me as an individual, but arguably difficult for my sector is setting limits when you can access emails. In Germany, Labour Ministry guidelines prescribe that the ministry’s hierarchy cannot call their subordinates after working hours. And Volkswagen has installed a system that makes that people can’t send or receive emails half an hour after working time.

… but ultimately it’s up to ourselves to balance work and life

But as I already hinted before, work-life balance is a personal issue, and comes a lot with your personal attitude about work. The key points are:

  • be honest to yourself. A career is a choice. Some choices are incompatible with a healthy family life. A challenging job where you need to work very long hours or to travel all the time makes it difficult to balance a private life
  • manage your time. Sometimes there are key deadlines to meet, and work requires to stay a bit longer. But in many cases, the decision to leave a bit earlier or to stick around a bit is up to you. In quiet times – as July should be – there is space to take it a bit easier without affecting quality.

Some of these attitude can be changed. As I said, my habit is to inform my colleagues: “if urgent, please text”. A couple of weeks ago, shockingly, I had to go somewhere where I couldn’t bring my phone. So instead I wrote: if urgent be patient.

That’s what I strive for – to keep patience and calm even facing urgencies. Because I realise that in a couple of years time, I don’t want to wake up and realise I am turning into one of these people who in front of the eyes of death tell those around them: I wish I hadn’t worked so much.

If urgent, be patient.

“Privacy is theft”, a warning about invasive technology

Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist

If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that  communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.

Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.

It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.

The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.

It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home?  Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.

Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.

Teaching my smartphone empathy – Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels

Once again, I had the chance to experience the magic of TED during TEDxBrussels this year. I’ve already written about the scrub for the brain I got for the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. For me, some of the highlights were Diana Reiss‘ research on the intelligence of dolphins, TEDx regular Mikko Hypponen on the protection of a free internet and Antony Evans, who creates glowing plants just for the heck of it and to replace street lamps by fluorescent trees (and still manages not to sound completely ridiculous).

As a happiness blogger, though, here I’d like to focus on the talk by Matt Dobson. Dobson is the co-founder of the UK tech startup EI Technologies, which aims to ‘teach smartphones empathy’. That is, he has created an app that based on a speech sample of half a second to a couple of seconds long can recognise emotions. The 7 second video below from Dobson’s blog gives a feel of how it works:

In his TEDx talk, he explains how the app that he and his co-founder Duncan Barclay have conceived works. Human beings – and dogs alike – are able to recognise emotions in people’s voices, even if they don’t understand what is being said. These skills can even be ‘taught’ to smartphones! Whilst human beings can distinguish between emotions intuitively, the story becomes a question of physics and maths for your phone. In physics, spoken text moves in sound waves, and wave lengths vary with emotion. All these acoustic features – loudness, pitch, patterns can be measured, analysed and interpreted, allowing the app to recognise how you feel. Dobson explains it in full in his talk:

And than the million dollar (or Pounds, for a Brit) question: what can you do with this? Is the next step a smartphone also be taught to tell us jokes, make us read feelgood articles or send us a funny cat video whenever we are down? Well, even when the smartphone is invading our lives, our happiness does not depend on it.

But the smartphone may come to the rescue. Around 50% of the population in Western countries suffers distress, or has stress levels that reduce their life expectancy. 15 to 20% has anxiety or depressions. Despite these large numbers, other, more visible, diseases and therapies get way more investment than mental health problems.

A fundamental problem in psychotherapy is that therapists rely on the feelings that depressed people report. Often, people are asked to report their feelings through a mood diary with their feelings. But as depressed people are not the most motivated ones, data in these diaries is often not very reliable. Based on very short samples and data points at several moments in the data, Dobson’s Xpression app can help. Even if the app can’t directly respond itself, it can help you, or your therapist, to understand your feelings during different moments in the day. When the data is there, human empathy does the rest.

Further reading:

Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels. Photo copyright: TEDxBrussels

Matt Dobson at TEDxBrussels. Photo copyright: TEDxBrussels