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Article  •  19 November 2019


Don’t look down

From The Resilience Project, four simple strategies to reclaim your attention and look up.

After a period living and volunteering in the far north of India, Australian primary school teacher Hugh van Cuylenburg was blown away by the remarkable positivity of the comparatively underprivileged locals. How was it, he wondered, that young people he knew at home, who had food, shelter, friends and a loving family, struggled with their mental health, while these kids seemed overwhelmingly happy? This experience led him on a journey to find answers to this question.

Years of study, research and questions followed and, through this, van Cuylenburg came to understand that practising gratitude, empathy and mindfulness leads us to happier and more fulfilling lives. From this realisation, he established The Resilience Project – via which he’s taken emotionally engaging programs to schools, sports clubs and businesses, providing practical, positive mental health strategies to build resilience and happiness.

Backed by evidence-based analysis and inspiring personal anecdotes, The Resilience Project (the book) brings these life-changing messages to life for an ever-broadening audience. In the passage below, van Cuylenburg offers four tips to help reclaim our attention, look up from our devices and better experience the incredible real world that surrounds us.

A 2017 Deloitte survey found Australians checked their phones more than 35 times a day on average, an increase of around 17 per cent on just the year before.1 Thirty-five per cent of us check our phone within five minutes of waking up in the morning, and 70 per cent use phones during mealtimes with family and friends.2

Needless to say, it’s extremely hard to be mindful and mentally present when some of the world’s biggest media corporations are trying to rip our time and attention from our hands. Smartphones are here to stay, and so is social media. And they’re not the only threats; in 2018, the World Health Organization classified gaming addiction as a mental health disorder.3 Our kids are copping it from everywhere.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we are not powerless, and the other side of this shiny technological coin has many benefits that can help enrich our lives. But we need to be careful. There are four simple strategies that I strongly recommend you try, so you can reclaim much of what the attention economy has taken from you:

On 2 July 2018, I dumped Facebook from my mobile and vowed only to look at it when I was using my laptop. I haven’t been on Facebook since, and it’s not because I’m trying to avoid it – I’m just not as easy a target for Mark Zuckerberg’s addiction engineers as I was when I had Facebook in my pocket.

The decision to delete the app was a life-changer. I didn’t feel that I was any less connected to the people I wanted to connect with, and I realised I had spent most of my time on Facebook looking at garbage – stuff that, if someone asked me to check out in real life, I’d laugh at and walk away. I’ve often wondered how I’d react if I walked past a cafe, saw a friend and they said, ‘Just in time! My coffee has arrived. Would you like to see how it looks from directly above?’

There is no reason whatsoever to have notifications on our phones switched on. The only reason they exist is to suck us back into the app abyss. We don’t need to know every single time someone has liked a photo, sent us a message, commented on a thread we’re following or tagged us on Twitter. It’s getting to the point where we don’t really decide when we check our phones; our phones are deciding for us – more than 35 times a day!

The only apps we should have on our home screens are ones we’re not addicted to. Once you clear all the addictive stuff off your home screen, you’ll be amazed how few things you really ‘need’ on your phone. In my case I was left with just three apps: music, podcasts and Google Maps. That’s it. Everything that has an addictive component I have placed in a separate file on the sixth screen across labelled ‘Regret’.

When we disconnect from our phones we reconnect with life. Thanks largely to persuasive technology we’ve been conditioned to think we can’t be without them. When we leave home these days we check that we have our keys, wallet, sunnies and… ‘Where’s my bloody phone?’

A few years back I started leaving mine at home at every opportunity. OK, often I need my phone for work, but do I need it if I’m going out to dinner? Going for a run? To the movies? Cricket training? Phones only serve to interrupt these moments and derail the joy of being present with the people we’re with, even if that person is ourselves.

Not long after setting myself the rule about limiting my phone use, I caught up with a mate at a pub in Fitzroy.

It was a very quiet night at the pub as I sat at the bar and swapped stories with my mate. After a while he got up to go to the gents’. ‘Back in a sec,’ he said and disappeared. Suddenly I was one of only a few punters in the entire pub. Like Pavlov’s dog I reached into my pocket to get my phone, and I actually felt annoyed that I’d left the thing at home.

I had nothing to do for the next minute or so. It was a strange feeling, like the world had stopped. ‘How did we not look weird when we were sitting without anything to do, in the time before smartphones?’ I pondered. That’s when I noticed the barman just a few feet away, cleaning a pint glass.

‘How’s your night going?’ I inquired. ‘It’s pretty quiet – you must love that?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I actually prefer it when it’s busy.’


‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I’m just going through some difficult stuff at the moment and when it’s really quiet I can’t get it out of my head, but when it’s busy I escape it for a bit.’

Suddenly I was in the midst of a serious moment with a fellow human being, and the world felt very full again. ‘Oh,’ I said, giving him my complete attention. ‘Are you alright?’

‘No, not really,’ he replied. ‘I’m just going through a breakup and it’s pretty full-on at the moment.’

‘I’m really sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I know exactly how that feels. It’s awful.’

The barman and I were still talking about his situation five minutes after my mate returned.

‘Anyway,’ he said as a couple of customers appeared at the other end of the bar, ‘I’ll let you guys get back to it.’

‘Take care of yourself, mate,’ I said as he turned to serve the others. He flashed me a little thumbs up.

When I got home later, all I could think was, ‘Thank God I left my phone here.’ The barman clearly needed to reach out and make that connection in that moment; as soon as I opened my mouth to speak to him he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. If I’d had my phone with me, that conversation would never have happened. I’d have buried my head in the internet, and if the barman had wanted to talk about his emotional problems he’d have had to lean over and say, ‘Excuse me, do you want to talk about my breakup for a minute?’

Increasingly, over the past ten years, more and more of us have been using social media to try to fulfil our basic psychological needs: the need to feel loved, to feel like we belong, to feel validated and achieve degrees of social status.

If we’re hungry for love, we post a photo of ourselves and all people have to do is press a heart button to let us know they approve. If it’s status we crave, we can simply add a ‘status update’ to show people we aced the job interview, took the holiday, skied down the mountain or welcomed the child. In return we hope our screens will bloom with little blue thumbs to feed our psychological hunger.

But it doesn’t really nourish us. The flesh-and-blood thumbs up that the barman at the Union Club Hotel gave me meant more than a million likes on Facebook could. I imagine our talk that night meant much more to him than a sad-face emoji, too. This was an everyday illustration of the benefits of communication and social connection, something I am passionately advocating for day in, day out at The Resilience Project.

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The Resilience Project


The key steps to leading a happier, more contented and fulfilling life.

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