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Contagious Ideas Maya Mutalik

1) In Another Life

In my video essay, I explore the idea of “happiness” as it relates to the exploration of living another life. As I see it, happiness and fulfillment are central to Rothman’s essay. The question, “what is happiness/ what is it to be happy” is one that I personally find myself thinking about almost everyday. When I dream, it is because I imagine the potential for me to be happier. When I ponder the other lives I could have lived, it is often to understand if doing something differently would have made me happier than I am now. I find myself craving those moments of true “happiness”, anxiously seeking them, holding onto them when I can, frustrated when they’re gone... Yet, I’ve come to realize that however personal these explorations of mind may seem, they are intrinsically linked to external forces. Our understanding of “happiness” is constantly influenced by the arbitrary rules we are told to live by and the values we are told to care about by our societies and our cultures. It is this realization that made me question what we are all constantly chasing with our dreams and our regrets and the validity of the chase itself.

As we analyze our past and consider our futures, as we will inevitably do, we must consciously be aware of where we derive our definitions of happiness. We must evaluate whether these definitions are extrinsic forces that we have blindy internalized or intrinsic ones that we have contemplated and defined on our own. Only then can we reflect and dream with necessary clarity.

Finally, we must make the distinction between reflecting and regretting. While dreams and thoughts of the potential that lies ahead can penetrate us forward, dwelling on the countless, intangible lives we could have lived is no more than a foolproof way of torturing the psyche and robbing ourselves of our limited time in this precious existence.

The above image struck me as a reminder that in many ways, we are trained from a very young age by media, culture, and society not to “think,” or rather, not to think critically or deeply. The values we adopt from our flawed societies also shape our definitions of happiness and consequently, our dreams and regrets. If I am to dream or to regret (as I will), at the very least, I want these fantasies to be rooted in my own ideals.

2) The Loneliness Pandemic

As I walk past the apartments around me each day, I admit I glance into the glass windows of my neighbors. I’ve noticed that many live alone and have been alone throughout this entire pandemic.

Day after day, a middle-aged woman sits on her laptop in the same position every time I walk by. An older man in another unit stands in front of the television watching CNN. Same exact scenes at different times of day; it sometimes feels like a still picture. In those moments, I imagine what it’s like to spend months living in complete isolation...

One of my favorite podcasts, Modern Love released a segment last May, "Alone in A Pandemic." In the segment, people who live alone simply share stories about their lives. Some stories make me emotional. But not all are sad stories, not at all. Many people are perfectly happy being alone and feel in fact frustrated by the pity they receive.

Modern Love Podcast

Like everything else in this world; I’ve come to realize that loneliness is beautiful; loneliness is painful; loneliness is complex.

From a privileged seat, I remain detached from the deep pain that many have been experiencing for over a year. I’ve experienced loneliness in the past, but over the course of COVID-19, I haven’t had to, and I am incredibly fortunate for that.

No, I haven’t been lonely, but I have spent more time than ever before, alone. And I can speak to the most beautiful parts of loneliness. In solitude, I’ve experienced tremendous growth and extreme fulfillment.

Perhaps because I am not alone, I am better positioned to explore solitude at my own pace. And with solitude, comes the exploration of ideas, of surroundings, of self.

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve discovered I’m actually quite fun to hang out with. I’ve explored my passions for photography, dance, and art. I’ve developed new interests in cooking, physics, and meditation. I find myself surprisingly energized when I have the time and space to be alone.

During the pandemic, I began experimenting with documentary photography. It gave me an excuse to hear peoples' stories, enter new environments, and explore a dream of mine.

I’ve transformed from a life-long extrovert to a passionate introvert, content within the complex landscape of my own mind. I’ve realized the depths one can explore alone; they go deep and far. There’s never a need to engage in small talk with yourself or entertain subjects or activities you don't sincerely enjoy. There’s never a need to suppress a thought or an idea. Books, articles, and videos fuel the mind and ensure it never runs out of ideas to explore.

Moreover, with loneliness comes reflection. As the article notes, “I think people are reevaluating their lives and trying to find meaning in the midst of what is a very difficult set of circumstances.” When we’re alone, we pause, and when we pause, we take a step back and we see more clearly.

On the outside looking in.

In a modern society filled with long work hours, constant stress, superficial relationships, it is more likely that we will not be pleased with our lives from this new angle, and that can be difficult to cope with. It’s like realizing you’ve been running full speed on a treadmill you don’t truly want to be on. But ultimately, with awareness, we are closer to truth and better equipped to shape our lives for the better. This to me is a beautiful thing no matter how painful it may be, the process of discovery is essential.

I’ve spent time reflecting on and confirming the kind of lifestyle I want to lead and the goals I want to accomplish. With time alone, I've come to realize the traits I truly value in people: open-mindedness and intense curiosity. With these realizations, my friendships have reduced in quantity and increased in quality.

My relationship has only become stronger and more real. To have someone to care for and grow with is something to treasure deeply. And we have been, everyday. We often ask each other how we go this lucky.

During my time alone, the greatest lessons that I’ve learned about myself are that I am optimistic and adaptable. And while I can’t wait to travel, spend nights out in cities, go to the cinema again (the three things I’ve missed most) I wouldn’t trade the time I have spent deepening my relationships with others and myself for any other experience. I’ve learned to sit comfortably in chaos and find beauty in everything, and I feel confident that I will continue to lead a life that is meaningful and fulfilling to me post-pandemic.

3) Pandemic Mixtape

The below video provides a closer look into the songs from my Pandemic Playlist. (The video came out longer than I intended it to be; if you watch it, I hope you enjoy!)

4) Contagious Ideas

Anti-Social Media Movement

A promising movement that has caught on over the past year is the anti-social media movement. Thanks in large part to the leading Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, Western society at large is starting to reflect on the detrimental impacts of apps like facebook, instagram, twitter, & tiktok.

According to the Center of Humane Technology, the Social Dilemma has already reached an estimated 100 million people, streaming in 190 countries and in 30 languages. It is now the highest-ranking documentary on Netflix in 2020. Indiwire wrote that it is "perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and profoundly terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption." This also goes to show the immense power of documentary film as a medium of educating masses and enacting large-scale cultural change.

While I genuinely believe social media can be used in beautiful and positive ways including keeping us connected to people we’ve met throughout the course of our lives and sharing our creative ideas with the world, its negative impacts are immense and for many people, outweigh the benefits. In short, these applications rob hours away from us everyday, bring out our worst desires to be liked, and incentivize us to put on a show for others. This promising new data indicates that we’re finally starting to realize it. “Findings from Edison Research and Triton Digital show social media usage overall among Americans 12 to 34 years old across several platforms has either leveled off or is waning, while research from Global Web Index suggests that the amount of time millennial and Gen Z audiences spend on many social platforms is either flat, declining, or not rising as greatly as it has in years’ past” (HBR).

Shift in cultural mindsets towards data privacy and safety play a role in these behavior changes. I’ve noticed many people in my personal network are deleting social media apps from their phone for long periods of time in an effort to make better use of their time. In light of this trend, new products are emerging to help us redefine our dependence on technology. One such product is the “Light Phone,” a phone designed to be used as little as possible." The question is, will we change for the long-term or revert back to the addictive applications that have the data and therefore the power to reel us back in. I believe long-term change can only take place with policy-change/ legislation protecting our data and placing much heavier restrictions on big tech companies. Social movements are often where progress starts, and with these recent findings, I am hopeful for the future.

Ugly Lies About Beauty

What are we teaching young women?

While there is some positive data indicating less use of social media by certain age groups, toxic social media trends continue to exist. Perhaps the most toxic trend is the increase in use of snapchat face filters by teenage girls. Filters that virtually give users porcelain skin, slimmer face shapes, bigger eyes, bigger lips, etc. can now be seen on all mainstream platforms. Pre-teen and teenage girls are the most frequent users of such filters. Not only do these filters quite literally create a false sense of reality for its users, they spread harmful narratives about how one should look. Why are we providing humans, and more specifically insecure young women who are already overly scrutinized for their looks with tools that make them more satisfied with the fake virtual view of themselves than the actual one? The normalization of such toxic behaviors is disturbing. People are literally getting plastic surgery to look more like snapchat filters. “The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” is derived from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is characterized by obsession over perceived physical flaws, even those that may be invisible to others” (Time Magazine). With TikTok now being widely used by young people globally, it has been hypothesized that Asian beauty standards will become our globally accepted definition of beauty that the masses aspire to look like. After all, it is the ones in power that ultimately define what we perceive to be beauty based on what they choose to portray in the media we consume. This should just serve as a reminder of how arbitrary beauty is. It's truly a shame that we are so focused on something that matters so little. As much as I wish that humans would reduce the time we spend worrying about our physical appearances, it seems unlikely that this will ever happen, and unfortunately new technology seems to only be making it worse.

Hopes for A Collective Awakening

In the upcoming years, I hope that our society will collectively recognize the powers of psychedelics and more specifically the chemical compound, psilocybin. Psilocybin, the active ingredient found in “magic” mushrooms despite being about 100 times less potent than LSD, is capable of "altering perception of space and time, causing visual distortions, euphoria, and life-changing experiences." Before President Nixon and the U.S. federal government declared a war on drugs in the 1970's, research studies in this space showed promising results. Although research in this area was completely halted during this time, it is now a growing field of study. “Multiple studies suggest that psychedelics may facilitate neuroplasticity at the cellular and network levels allowing the brain to form and reorganize connection” (Mass Gen).

Ultimately this means that these drugs have the potential to change patterns in brain activity that formerly caused suffering, addiction, or close-mindedness/mental blocks. “Its potential indications include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, quitting smoking, alcohol addiction, cocaine addiction, cluster headaches, and cancer-related or other end-of-life psychological distress. Additionally cancer-related psilocybin therapy is considered one of the most promising areas of research for the drug” (Healthline, NYU Langone). For addiction and depression, it has in many cases outperformed years of therapy, providing a faster relief in single use cases. Author and Professor of science and environmental journalism at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan has been a leading advocate for a shift in mindset on psilocybin and LSD. He wrote the book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, about the history and future of psychedelic drugs.

As noted in his book, individuals who take psychedelics frequently report similar kinds of meaningful experiences including reflecting on what’s important, seeing the bigger picture, realizing that each individuals’ perspective is a slice of a collective truth, feeling at one with all living things and the environment... Based on my understanding of psilocybin and the research findings in the field, I believe that widespread use of the drug will positively impact individuals and our systems and societies at large. I also feel that widespread acceptance and recreational use is feasible. As scientific research continues, we will have only more answers and more trust. Psychedelics have been legalized in many areas including Brazil, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Native American Reservations in the US, and most recently the state of Oregon. In order to tackle our world’s most pressing problems: climate change, racial and religious tensions, bipartisanship, we need more perspective and less ego, more acceptance and more open-mindedness, and if a chemical compound found in nature shows promising results to do that, we must comprehensively study it and take seriously its potential applications.

5) Final Lessons

I think the following ideas will be contagious 10 years from now:

Veganism- I predict that veganism will increase and a large percentage of Americans will stop eating meat (much more than today). Eating meat will eventually be seen as just as inhumane as slavery. The mistreatment of animals and excess use of water will no longer be tolerated by the masses.

Another T**mp? :/ - I hope not, but with extreme progress in minority rights, animal rights, environmental work, and other important sectors, resistance will inevitably arise, and the large base of trump supporters will fight to be heard, finding a new leader to represent them. Unless we can bridge the extreme political divide and information gap, this seems like an unavoidable reality.

Electric Vehicles Everywhere - (Overall great news though) All companies will pledge to be fully electric; companies are already taking pledges to work towards this goal within the decade, and accountability will only increase. Additionally, companies like Tesla are producing electric vehicles at scale, and the US government has aggressive plans to build a strong charging infrastructure network. (Hopefully we will have come together by then as a planet to take collective action on climate change and will still be alive.)

Movement for Indigenous People -Native Americans and Indigenous people continue to be heavily oppressed in the US and have not yet seen a major movement voicing their stories and fighting for their rights. As our collective consciousness develops, I predict that this will be a major movement pioneered by the BIPOC community in the US.

Three most valuable ideas and questions from this course:

  1. What we do not learn from history, we are condemned to repeat. (Even when we do learn lessons, we may still repeat our past failures). To quote my midterm, just as the plague will come again, human nature will repeat itself. We are greedy, tribal, egotistical, creatures with limited awareness of the full scope of things. Majority of the time, we are incapable of just enjoying our incredible fortune to exist for a brief moment in time in space. Society advances, social problems may reside, but it takes as little as one populist leader or a pandemic to revive the evil parts of human nature that so many have desperately worked to destroy, as we’ve seen time and time again. Strong systems will endure longer than weak ones, but the tides will inevitably sway back and forth, our nature merely repeating itself in different scenarios.
  2. Despite this cycle, there is hope. We’ve made immense progress as a species over the course of our existence and although we have dark sides, we also have beautiful, innovative, empathetic sides. If we choose to invest in the “good” parts of human nature in the ways in which we design the systems we operate in, we can perhaps create a more equitable and just world. As Camus writes, “there are more things to admire in men than to despise." It's up to us to choose where to focus our attention.
  3. Remaining questions: What will be our future as a human race? Will our good sides prevail over our dark sides, or will we destroy ourselves before we reach our full potential? Only time will tell.