In a little shop, in the heart of Silicon Valley, I found something I’ve been looking for, for a very long time. It started with a whisper: “Thank you for being so polite”, the young cashier said as she handed me my bag. I stopped. I didn’t know what she was talking about.
I asked her, polite? She nodded “You said, Good morning, and thank you.”
I was taken aback. “That’s polite?”, I asked her.
She looked down “Once”, she said, “my friend asked me, what I would wish for, if I could have one thing in the world for a day I told him, I’d have my customers say, ‘Hello and thank you.'” With that, she shrugged and went back to work.
We live in a time of unprecedented connectivity. And yet, often, we are disconnected .Tech has elevated the efficiency of nearly everything we do. And yet, we expect our interactions to work like transactions, as efficient as Tech itself I’ve worked in Silicon Valley since 1981.
And I know and appreciate the incredible benefits technology’s rise has enabled and yet, there is a shadow side. All this efficiency can hack our quality of life. Today we want things fast, predictable and on demand. Better yet, delivered by a drone. And yet many of us feel isolated and overwhelmed.
Sure, tech promises us more time for the people and things we love. And yet, that time is needed simply to keep up: connecting, key to our happiness, doesn’t always make the cut. Now, we try to push back Digital detox, tech free zones, apps that shut our devices down. But it isn’t easy.
Tech and our reliance on it advances every day. So I wondered, as someone who’s watched the Valley change, and change the world over 35 years, what might it take to make connecting with people as easy habit forming and rewarding as our favorite technologies. Would we look up from our connectivity and actually find more of the happiness only connection can bring? There is a way to answer questions like this, it’s called design thinking. And it’s helped innovators create some of the products we love most. The process works best when we care about a problem.
And this was a problem I cared about. Like everyone, I’ve had information overwhelm disconnect me from people and things I loved. I wanted a better way. The design process begins with empathy. That story from the little Silicon Valley shop showed me how people feel unseen, unnoticed in day to day life.
It also showed me how they wish to change, but didn’t know how to get started. Design Thinking’s next step is observation, and this opened my eyes. Wherever I looked, I noticed people mirroring each other’s behavior. When everyone tuned into tech, everyone turned into tech. Silence, stress, no interaction, that’s how things stayed.
Yet if one person created a spark of engagement, the entire room changed. People turned to each other, shared eye contact, shared smiles. In only a moment, everything changed. Design Thinking’s next step is synthesis. Where you take everything you’ve observed and bring it together in search of an ‘Aha moment.’
I had my moment. The solution to this problem already existed. It was so simple, I hadn’t noticed. But it worked really well. It was the simple appreciation that cashier had asked for as her one thing in the world.
You may think this hit me as good news. No I mean, in Silicon Valley we look to break through innovation to change the world. Not simple, obvious things we’ve done since the dawn of time. So, when I went to ideation, the next design step, I dug in deep.
Ideation is like the Disneyland of Design Thinking. A wild creative idea jam, that is bound to fix problems, once and for all. I tried, I tried to think of tech, apps, sensors, devices that would elevate interaction. Trigger it, reward it with bonus points for eye contact, yet nothing came.
And as I looked to other ideas and products people were working on to help with this connection thing, nothing worked as well as that simple appreciation of the moment and the people in it. It turns out, really simple things like “hellos” and “thank yous”, actually did kick start the pass to create happiness, pass that naturally grew. It did that by stimulating the brain areas that deal with complex thought and self control, increasing effortlessly focus and motivation. Even small bits of appreciation flooded the brain with reward chemicals. It also eased depression, lifted spirits and deepened sleep.
Over time, habits of gratitude increase physical health, reduce stress and increased resilience, attention and energy Best of all, appreciation and gratitude activated cognitive and emotional centers in the brain. Creating cycles of appreciation that scientists said acted in a limitless way. We all know those stories of wanderers, who travel the Earth in search of jewels and riches, only to come home to a treasure they’ve had all along. It hit me that appreciation and gratitude were like these treasures.
And they were as rewarding and habit forming as our best technology. There was one major design flaw, no technology is perfect. Remembering it, specially when under pressure, took practice. But once we remembered, the benefits were clear. There was only one thing left to do: test, it made a difference across populations, across small work groups.
One on one, everywhere this gratitude thing worked. It worked at home, it worked at work and it worked in public. Across demographic categories as real researchers say. It even worked on dogs. But well, dogs. The apps and the drones and whatever technology comes next, will always promise more efficiency. That’s what they are designed for, let them have it. We run on different code, we are programmed to connect.