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Why Technology Does Not Make Us Happier

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Technology has come so far, just consider what we can do with it. Through our smart phones, tablets, and computers, we can:

  • Play countless completely engaging and immersive games – and all the classics too!
  • Basically listen to any song we want to hear at any time
  • Buy anything we can afford (well, and things we can’t as well!)
  • Gain access to the information to learn anything we want
  • Connect with friends, family, and acquaintances with ease
  • Create almost anything we can imagine – art, movies, programs

The list could go on and on. You get the picture though. Here’s the irony of it all. As a society, we aren’t any happier than before we had all of this technology. Research on the happiness of Americans over the past 30 years indicates that our general level of happiness (or subjective well-being) hasn’t changed much at all…despite all of the wonders of technology. Isn’t that odd? It makes us wonder why technology does not make us happier.
One might argue that other variables in the world are cancelling out whatever positives technology is providing – global warming, deforestation, urban sprawl, societal inequalities…the list could go on. Although there might be some truth to this, one might think that all of the daily benefits that we get from technology might still bump up our happiness levels just a bit. However, psychologists aren’t seeing it. There undoubtedly many reasons why technology might not be making us happier, but I want to talk about three reasons in particular.

  1. Hedonic Adaptation. We are adaptive creatures and that means we adapt to things that make us happy relatively quickly. So, whether we get a new car, ultra high-definition TV, Apple Watch, or win the lottery, our level of happiness will return to our baseline (standard or default) level of happiness fairly quickly. We can reflect on our own experiences to see the truth in this – how long did that new TV, couch, or car really make us happy? Or the new smart phone? Not that long. Although technology provides a countless ways to increase our happiness, we have adapted to those such that we don’t actually feel happier overall than when we did prior to having the technological advances. The irony is the we are constantly fooled by the seductive idea that “we will be happier when we get this_______.” The advertising industry is well-aware of this human tendency, and they exploit it to great profit.
  2. The Pros and Cons Neutralize One Another. Since technology affords us levels of power, freedom, social connection, and fun that we’ve never experienced before, the potential dangers and pitfalls are also inherent in this technology. We cannot have the benefits without the pitfalls (e.g., social networking but then there’s cyberbullying). Thus, to some extent, the positives and negatives cancel each other out to leave our happiness level back where it started. For example, technology can be used to increase productivity and efficiency. BUT spending time on social networking, going down the YouTube wormhole of watching funny cat videos, and endlessly sending/answering texts can significantly interfere  with our productivity as well as our social relationships.
  3. Sleep Deprivation. All of this technology is causing us to lose sleep. By some estimates, we are getting around 2 hours less sleep per night on average than we did in the 1960s. Yet, our need for sleep hasn’t diminished in thousands of years. Sleep deprivation has been well-documented to be a contributing factor to numerous physical and psychological problems, including obesity and depression.
  4. Diminished Attention. Our focused attention is the foundation for everything great in life – our relationships, our productivity, and, ultimately, our happiness. There is some research that indicates that, to experience feelings of deep joy and contentment in life (arguably what is meant by “true” happiness), it requires focused attention. It takes a while for those areas of the brain to get activated. The constant attention jumping we do these days, largely because of technologies such as texting, social media, and so on, means that we don’t sustain the focused attention long enough for deep thinking, the nurturing of relationships, and activation of areas of the brain associated with serenity and contentment. I have heard it said that attention is a form of love. The giving and receiving of love are intertwined with happiness. Thus, if these technologies interrupt our attention, we cannot experience love (nor help others experience it), and therefore we cannot be truly happy.

I still love technology. Heck, I’m ironically blogging about the dangers of technology hoping that this post garners many readers…who post to Facebook, tweet it, etc.! Ultimately  though I’m advocating a balanced use of technology. We definitely need to be informed and on our game so that our technology use doesn’t undermine our true enjoyment in life.

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