There’s no mistaking the fact that we live in a world in which our relationship with our digital devices is growing ever closer and more personal. Most of us take our smartphones to bed, and two-thirds of us report feeling nervous without them. A recent Stanford study found tween girls spend nearly seven hours a day on social media but only about two hours in face-to-face contact. Nearly 80 percent of us take our work-related devices on vacation, and every few years, researchers publish new statistics about the climbing rates of people who even check their phones during sex.

By now we’re so attached to our digital gadgets, websites, and apps that it’s easy to lose sight of a fundamental question: aside from the immediate rewards they provide, are they really making us happier?

If you’ve ever reconnected with an old friend through the internet, downloaded a favorite song, or researched in a few minutes a question that might otherwise have taken hours, you can attest to the emotional payoffs of technology. At the same time, if you’ve ever felt bogged down by emails, overloaded by a constant stream of info and grim news from around the world, or painfully inadequate comparing your life to the enviable, curated images flooding your social media feeds, you know the perils of our relationship with technology. You may even be familiar with complaints like “Facebook depression,” “smartphone addiction,” and “phubbing” (the act of snubbing one’s real-life companion in favor of a phone).

Since the wonders of technology aren’t going away any time soon, the challenge facing all of us is how to make enlightened choices as we navigate our course through the digital age. To do that, we can look to ancient wisdom traditions and the insights that modern psychological research offers, helping ensure that technology and social media truly enhance our well-being.

Happiness: What Really Matters?

There have been many definitions of happiness over the ages, from the profound to the humorous. Mahatma Gandhi believed, for example, that happiness flows “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” while the philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer once memorably declared that happiness is “nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” One of the many contributions of the positive psychology movement has been better operationalizing our vague concepts of what happiness actually consists of, focusing on three basic dimensions:

  • A strong presence of positive and pleasant emotions, both in the present moment and toward the past and the future
  • A feeling of connection with those around us, as well as with our activities, pursuits, and vocations
  • A sense of meaning and purpose that anchors us, even amid more challenging day-to-day experiences, when more fleeting positive emotions may not be present

To the degree that technology bolsters these elements, its presence in our lives can contribute to our happiness. In fact, a recent Pew survey found that around 90 percent of Americans believe the internet and social media have been net positives in their lives. But technology can also breed negative emotional states, creating feelings of isolation and alienation, and diminishing our sense of purpose. The key lies in determining how best to wield technology so that it boosts our moment-to-moment sense of well-being in a more enduring way.

A core miscalculation many of us make is believing that happiness flows from the outside in. We think, for example, that if we only had more money, lived in a different town, or met the right person, then we’d be happy. It’s not that these sorts of factors don’t make us feel good; they certainly do. The problem is that they make us only a little happier, and only for a short time. Our experiences on social media reflect this pattern. When someone “likes” a photo we post online, or when we acquire more “friends” or “followers,” we feel good—but the good feelings quickly dissipate, and we have to repeat the cycle all over again.

The bottom line is that our life circumstances account for only a small portion of our happiness—as little as 10 percent, according to several studies. Far more important are our attitudes, mindsets, habits, and behaviors, both in the “real world” and in our digital lives. So what sorts of attitudes and habits make a lasting difference when it comes to our happiness? Research from positive psychology has identified key factors that offer a helpful frame in considering how we use can best use technology and social media to enhance our well-being.

Gratitude. The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Modern research supports this wisdom and sheds light on the power of gratitude to change our lives. Indeed, individuals who regularly practice gratitude have been found to have lower rates of depression, higher rates of well-being, closer interpersonal relationships, and improved physical health.

So when our tendency to compare ourselves to others on social media creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with our lives, we can pause and, rather than getting further dragged down into unhappiness, harness the positive power of our ever-present devices to do things like update a digital gratitude journal or express our gratitude to someone online. The gratitude-building app Happier, for example, enables people to share positive moments and expressions of gratitude across social media.

Mindfulness. As the Buddhist monk and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh points out, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness; if you’re attentive, you’ll see it.” Nevertheless, in today’s fast-paced world, as our devices distract us and multitasking becomes a way of life, being present in the moment can seem to be more difficult than ever, with some studies suggesting that we spend nearly half our waking hours living in the past or the future. Mindfulness practice—cultivating the ability to be fully present with our thoughts, experiences, and sensations in a nonjudgmental manner—has been found to be one of the most effective ways to enhance emotional well-being, increase happiness, and improve physical health.

If properly used, technology can actually enhance our ability to be present via apps that offer guided meditations and breathing exercises from teachers around the world, making mindfulness accessible on a broad scale. Some apps are designed to offer reminders to slow down throughout the day; others offer yoga instruction, mindful-eating cues, calming music, cosmic images for contemplation, and connections to larger communities of people who can further support the pursuit of living more mindfully.

Connection. George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who helped oversee a well-known longitudinal study on happiness, once remarked, “Happiness is love. Full Stop.” He was referring to research that highlights the impact our closest interpersonal relationships have on our sense of well-being and physical health. The irony, of course, is that while technology and social media certainly have the potential to make us more connected, Americans report feeling lonelier now than at any time in history. We can have crowds of “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter, but the quality of our closest connections may have suffered. It can help to keep that in mind and take steps to go deeper with friends, even through online platforms. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, most people these days report that their relationships with friends and family have improved thanks to technologies like Skype and social media.

Kindness and Compassion. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Many of us are raised in families or faiths that teach kindness and compassion as worthy goals. But over the past decade or so, much research has underscored the physical and emotional health benefits of giving to others. Individuals who are altruistic and kind toward others have higher levels of happiness, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and enhanced physical health outcomes. Of course, social media often fuels narcissistic and self-focused thinking and behaviors, but it also holds strong potential to connect us with causes and other people in ways that seemed inconceivable in the past.

Encouragingly, in recent studies, more people report being treated with kindness and generosity online than those who report negative interactions, such as bullying. A study on emotional contagion even found that positive social media posts spread more rapidly than negative ones. In one example of this, a group of teens in Iowa City concerned with cyberbullying took to Twitter to spread messages of kindness and compassion to their classmates and teachers, inspiring many others to do the same.

Self-Compassion. While being kind and compassionate toward others may come more naturally to some, learning to turn that caring toward ourselves can often be more difficult. As clinician and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield reminds us, “If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it’s incomplete.” In recent years, a great deal of research has demonstrated the importance of self-compassion to our overall well-being. Individuals who can foster self-compassion rather than self-criticism have notably better mental and physical health outcomes, as well as increased happiness and well-being.

Social media in particular can adversely affect our ability to be self-compassionate. Through negative social comparisons, we often end up feeling as if we don’t measure up, or that everyone around us “has it together” while we struggle to make our way. But fostering genuine connections allows us to see past the superficial views of others that lead us to feel bad about ourselves. Taking the time to know people beyond what they may share publicly, even if it’s partly through online platforms, can help put our own flaws and frailties into perspective as simply a part of being human. And if we need further help extending kindness toward ourselves, a host of websites and apps are available to help enhance our self-compassion through specific practices and readings.

Hacking Happiness

It’s not a question of whether things like Facebook, smartphones, or Instagram are good or bad, but rather how we can best use them for happiness and fulfillment. Used in the right way—to foster connection, meaning, and purpose—technology can enhance our happiness. With this in mind, the following are a few simple rules of thumb, drawn from recent studies, that can help us “hack happiness.”

Limit Screen Time. Try developing some parameters around your use of technology. Apps like Moment can assess your baseline level of use (hint: it’s often a lot more than we expect), which can help you develop some realistic goals for cutting down on your screen time. Small changes can go a long way, so consider taking steps like checking your email only three to five times per day, putting all electronics away in the hours leading up to bed, turning off notifications on your phone, or sharing meals with your loved ones without any phones, tablets, or computers present.

Take a Technology Fast. Beyond small changes in your everyday life, consider devoting larger chunks of time to being free from technology. As Emma Seppala, a Stanford psychologist and happiness expert, points out, taking periodic technology fasts can improve concentration, reduce stress, and enhance our overall happiness and well-being. These can range from several hours to several days, but both can make a significant difference to our well-being.

Consider the Pillars of Happiness. A good rule of thumb when it comes to our use of technology is to pause and reflect on whether we feel it’s bringing us closer to or further away from what’s most important in our lives. Stopping to consider whether our use of technology is helping us feel more grateful, compassionate, connected, and self-compassionate is a good place to start. If those areas are being enhanced and strengthened through the use of technology, then you’re on the right track. If, however, it feels as if they’re being weakened or neglected, it’s a good clue to shift your priorities and habits.

Share the Positive. Research from James Fowler of UC San Diego suggests that sharing good news and spreading cheer via social media can enhance our own well-being, along with increasing the happiness of those in our social networks. Moreover, his research suggests that positive emotions spread wider and faster online than negative ones, so be sure to balance things out by sharing good news, positive stories, and words of encouragement to those around you online.

Put the “Social” in Social Media. Despite the power of technology to bring us together, the sad reality is that much of the time the connections it creates are largely superficial. Studies show that using social media actively—that is, reaching out to friends and loved ones, or planning in-person get-togethers—contributes more to happiness than passively scanning feeds and engaging in social comparison. So try consciously using technology to foster your real-life relationships, rather than simply staying behind a screen.

Develop an “App”-etite for Happiness. Each new day seems to bring a release of apps that can directly enhance our own happiness and well-being. Try experimenting with general happiness-building apps, such as Happify, which is full of happiness games and positive-guided reflections, or those focused more specifically on mindfulness, such as Headspace, which offers guided mediations.

Our lives today are filled with comforts and luxuries that must have been unthinkable in previous ages. With the touch of a screen or the opening of an app, we can connect instantaneously with the world around us in ways that would’ve made the Jetsons green with envy. Among the most encouraging findings to emerge in the positive psychology literature is the fact that the practices and habits that enhance our well-being are learnable and changeable. But staying on course with this kind of positivity online isn’t easy. Just as in “real” life, it takes practice.

 

Illustration © Dimitri Otis

Jonah Paquette

Jonah Paquette, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and author. He is the author of Real Happiness: Proven Paths for Contentment, Peace, and Well-Being (PESI, 2015), a research-based self-help book in which he distills the key findings in the fields of happiness, and offers user-friendly tools to achieve lasting well-being. His second book, The Happiness Toolbox (PESI, 2018), offers readers an array of easy-to-use handouts and exercises designed to enhance happiness in a lasting way. Dr. Paquette is a psychologist and Clinical Training Director for Kaiser Permanente in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he oversees the mental health training programs across four medical centers.

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