Updated: May 3
Connection means different things to different people, but overwhelmingly in today's world it relates to connection via technology. We are on our phones, for example, for a shockingly large proportion of our lives - on average a mobile phone user interacts with their device 85 times a day and 24 hours a week - that's a whole day of each week, and that's just the average!
Have you ever noticed how much your animals dislike your mobile phone? Watch carefully next time you are spending time with your horse, playing with your dog or stroking your cat and can't resist answering that beep in your pocket. How do they react? Sometimes they try to get our attention, most likely only to be told to wait. Often, having learned that that will be the response, they will simply walk away if they can, or lie down with an air of resignation. They really don't like the effect our phones and other devices have on our minds - the way they suck us out of the present moment and into something completely artificial, stimulating us in a completely unnatural way.
Even discounting the Covid effect humans are less and less connected, despite what we are told: we are isolated - disconnected from actual humans, animals and the natural world around us. Einstein said, "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will have a generation of idiots." Are his words too harsh if we apply them to how we live today? Only in part I feel: homogenous thought is more prevalent because people are not thinking for themselves as much as they did - there is a tendency to rely on quick-fire opinions rather than giving issues any deep thought. Our attention span is shorter nowadays and we crave constant surface stimulation rather than delving deeper, which would be much more satisfying long-term. People are not communicating in a real sense and therefore not being stimulated in a way that makes use of the whole their mind - it's just the drug-like dopamine stimulation that they crave. If we are honest, how often we can actually remember what we did on our phones for the last twenty minutes? Was it meaningful? Often we are in a phone-trance!
Animals of course, do the complete opposite for us - they keep us in the here and now and encourage us to be present, which is how they live their lives. They know that our heads are too busy and that we look back with regret and look forward with worry far too often. Recently I was having a quiet moment with a horse at Athena Herd who I have known for a few years. I was reminiscing and was feeling rather blue and he kept nudging my hand with his nose. My thoughts were still stuck int he past so this turned into nibbling and when I still wasn't listening he bit the knuckle of my thumb very hard. That worked - I came back to the present moment with a bang and I certainly stayed in it with him after that! I was also very grateful to him for his wisdom (and strangely, despite the intense pain, there was no mark or bruising afterwards).
Animals are trying to help us be (what we call) 'mindful' all the time, and this helps us to connect with them. The effect our phones have on us undermines what they are trying to do for us. Instead of the longer-lasting, slower process of 'soul-syncing' with our animals that has longer-lasting and far healthier benefits for our minds and bodies, we get an addictive quick hit of dopamine which is very short-lived and leads to us reaching for our phones again within minutes. It's the same toxic cycle as anything that is highly addictive (smoking, alcohol, coffee, drugs, caffeine, sugar, even shopping!) the short-term effect is very high and very brief and the down that follows leaves us craving more.
Tellingly there are many articles and books about how we can manage our phone addiction. One book is called, How to Break Up with Your Phone: the 30 day plan to take back your life! An article in Psychologies magazine giving the lowdown on how phone addiction affects our quality of life quotes an organisation called Shine Offline, who help people to manage their digital lives: "Our phones are as addictive as cocaine... we get a high every time we get a notification due to the dopamine, the feel-good chemical that's released". They also say, "it's proven that a visible phone in a social setting decreases the depth of our interaction" - bearing in mind that that's with people who are talking, what hope do our animals have when they can't speak and rely on subtler communication to get our attention? This subtle communication often gets missed, as I missed my equine friend's gentle reminders, until they need to 'shout' via other behaviour which is often viewed as undesirable. This can spiral out of control and the breakdown in communication is inevitable - just because we can't take our attention away from a small, rectangular beeping device: they must think we have lost our minds...
But we can get our minds back. We can train ourselves out of our phone habit and start to live life fully again. One little trick to use when you want to spend quality time with your animals is to turn it onto to Airplane or Flight mode when you're with them. This is very useful because, even if we are well-intentioned and turn the sound off so we don't hear notifications, often we would like to take a photo which means the phone comes out of our pocket, we see notifications and messages on the screen and we're back down that rabbit hole. However, using Flight mode means that we can still use the camera but all of our messages, etc. will be saved until we turn it on to full-functionality again. If we get into the habit of that, for example, when we get to the yard or when we start a dog walk (and how many people have you seen walking their dog with their head buried in their phone?!) it will enrich your experience enormously and make it so much more enjoyable for you and your animal.
Turning notifications off will also help to cut down on your screen time. If you can't see those enticing little red circles on your screen, telling you how many messages / likes /e-mails you have, you are fractionally less likely to look at the app, but of course there's always the, 'I wonder how many likes I've got for my photo of Flossie - I'll just have a quick look...'! You could rearrange your apps so that the tempting ones are off the front screen of your phone and you have to consciously flick through to find them. Or, if you can, just let your phone just be a phone! Delete your social media apps and only look at them on your computer when you're more likely to schedule your time. Even WhatsApp has a computer version you could use instead.
Connection with the natural world and our animals is life-enriching and has huge (and essential) benefits for our mental and physical health - let's put our phones down, give our animals some proper attention and gratefully receive their unconditional love and companionship.
For more on what our animals can do for our health have a look at this article: