Our desire for a quiet life amid the paradox of plenty
When I was a teenager, I would spend hours reading my favorite books uninterrupted. I would average four to five books a month. This was long before I had a cellphone, and when screen time was shared with my siblings. Today, it takes incredible discipline to sit through a book, a meeting or even a social gathering without checking my phone every 10 minutes. I am continuously drawn to the infinite array of social media and news sources and, for some inexplicable reason, I want to know everything all of the time. Ironically, and as with so many people around me, the exposure to infinite resources and outlets has had some undesirable effects. It has created a generation that is easily distracted, less knowledgeable and easily irritated. We clearly suffer from the “paradox of plenty.”
The paradox of plenty is used to describe a context in which countries have an abundance of natural resources and yet have little economic growth or development. Today, as we observe our surroundings, habits and lifestyles, the paradox of plenty as a concept is applicable everywhere. It is in the information overload and our acceptance and promotion of maximalism and opulent lifestyles. It manifests in our eagerness for the next big thing, our fear of missing out, and our over-exaggerated desire to follow the latest trends. It is in our obsession with more followers and likes, as well as our “doomscrolling” of social media feeds.
The paradox here is that, despite having infinite information at the tips of our fingers; despite the many cars, bags and mascaras we own and probably don’t use; despite the thousands of followers on our social media accounts; and despite our success at catching the latest hot chocolate before it becomes “overrated” or “so last month,” we remain unfulfilled and ill-informed.
Information overload has created a generation of people who struggle with chronic stress and anxiety. It has ironically resulted in us knowing less, despite the fact we are more exposed to information. It constantly interrupts our lives, adversely affecting our physical and mental well-being and productivity. Instead of being able to make better decisions, we now navigate a labyrinth of irrelevant information to get to what we need. By opening the information floodgates, we have reduced our ability to make good decisions. We are less intelligent than we used to be. Our mind is thus constantly tired, our bodies fatigued, and our energy exhausted.
The consumer capitalist mode of living has resulted in us being stuck in a rat race that we never seem to win. Our self-worth is measured by our productivity and we are constantly made to feel guilty if we work less or even log off when we’re supposed to. On the surface, we seem to have it all — bigger homes, faster internet and more praise — and yet we are still unhappy.
The paradox of plenty has transformed the psychology of our ambitions. We no longer want to burn the midnight oil in our offices in the hope we get a promotion. Instead, we want to bike our way to the nearest cafe, work on our tasks while sipping our favorite lattes, and be back home in time to enjoy the rest of the day with our families without being disrupted by the constant beeping of our phones.
Despite having infinite information at the tips of our fingers, we remain unfulfilled and ill-informed.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
In an attempt to cushion us from our anxieties, the same capitalist mode is encouraging us to seek “mindfulness” and try alternative methods to protect our mental well-being. This is why we hear of more people practicing yoga and trying out new ways of breathing (yes, apparently there is more than one way of breathing — I have recently been made aware of the Wim Hof method). This is why we desperately escape our cities for some green land and force ourselves through social media detoxes that hardly work. We have been seduced by the promise of mindfulness and healthy lifestyles through digital apps such as “Headspace” and counting our 10,000 steps through Fitbits. It is no wonder that more and more of us are seeking a world of solitude — one with as few things as possible, away from the noise of cities and trains. It is why we were glued to our screens watching Marie Kondo teach us how to declutter our homes and discard items that no longer spark joy. This is why we no longer want to sleep in cities that do not sleep, and why we dream of remote cottages with small gardens.
In our attempt to counter the paradox of plenty, we will continue to hope for a life where we forgo the social media apps, the instant headlines, and instead seek the mundane: The quiet night, the slow-paced day, and a simple book by a river. I sure hope we succeed.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik