For two weeks in March, Austin, TX, transforms into a hub of creativity when the SXSW Conference takes over the city.
The conference stretches across city blocks and fills the Texas capital city with thousands of technology, film, and music professionals. In 2015, SXSW welcomed more than 87,000 people to Austin to, as the conference’s chief programming officer Hugh Forrest puts it, “help creative people meet their goals.”
Although it’s massive, it’s the individual energy of attendees that fills the many conference venues, as attendees are here to show off what they’ve made, what they’ve learned, and what they’re interested in learning.
This year's conference opened with a keynote from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who spoke and answered questions for more than an hour.
Principally, he talked about love — what he called “the most powerful force in the universe” — and how that force has allowed Americans to span their differences since the founding of the country.
He also rejected the idea of tolerance, calling it “problematic.”
“It’s problematic if the aspirational idea of our society is tolerance when we should be a nation of love,” the Senator says. “I tolerate a cold.”
He continued: “Tolerance stomachs another’s right to be different. To love says ‘I recognize your dignity, your value, your worth.’ Tolerance crosses the street when someone else is coming. Love stops and embraces them.”
Booker, an active social media user, spoke about some of the pitfalls of the medium. He notes that social media channels have made it easier for people to connect less in person and cultivate a more convenient and powerful form of confirmation bias. It also inhibits people from developing a necessary degree of humility.
To Booker, losing that personal contact creates a “dangerous reality.” Not just in a lack of empathy from person to person, but also in an unhealthy way.
Vivek Murthy, the current U.S. Surgeon General, spoke later about the causes and short- and long-term impacts of stress.
Humans are inherently social beings, he says, as our species relies on the help of others to survive. But it seems with social media, humans aren’t feeling as connected to others as they once were.
According to Murthy, in 1980, 20% of adults reported feeling isolated in their lives. Today, that number hovers around 40% despite the widespread adoption of technology that was built to keep people connected.
“Isolation is concerning to me, it shortens lives,” he said.
According to Murthy, isolation carries with it the same mortality rates of smoking and obesity and increases the risk for anxiety, depression, dementia, heart disease, and a host of other health problems.
Despite the fact the link between social media and isolation is clear, the reason why is not: “There is a strong correlation between people who are isolated and using social media heavily,” the Surgeon General says. “But is it attracting people who are more likely to be lonely or are people more lonely drawn to social media?”
The remainder of Murthy's talk focused on the steps individuals can take to mitigate the impacts of stress. He named four:
These might seem obvious, but the real barrier is establishing these healthy habits early in life and continuing to make time for them as responsibilities increase and time runs short.
He cited the impacts of twice daily meditation for students in a middle school in an economically challenged neighborhood with high rates of violence and suspension. After four years, suspension fell by nearly 80% and grades and attendance went up.
As for his own life, Murthy, as Surgeon General, is busy. Yet he still makes time to meditate with his wife in the morning, workout a handful of times per week, and tries to get six to seven hours of sleep each night. But he admits the pace at which the world of 2017 moves is fast. So he looks for moments to slow things down.
“When are those moments of respite that we have to pause, rest, and be creative?” he asked.
For some, taking the time to smell the roses might seem like an unnecessary waste of time, but Murthy supplied an analogy based on the workings of the human heart.
The human heart beats in two phases: diastole and systole. Diastole refers to the relaxation of the heart, when it fills with blood; systole refers to the distribution of this blood throughout the body.
“You could say that pausing is what sustains the heart,” Murthy says. “When we don’t pause, we don’t provide ourselves the rest and reflection we need.”