Many say technology is tearing us apart but studies generally show that tech and the internet make us happier. What gives?
There’s certainly a near-term and long-term difference: your brain loves things that give you more options even if too many choices end up making you miserable. (Humans aren’t always rational. Welcome to Earth.)
More relevant, technology is a tool, and it’s all about what you do with it. Research has shown time and time again that what makes you happier is relationships with people.
Problem is we all have a tendency to use technology to replace relationships.
You do it with television:
Study 1 demonstrated that people report turning to favored television programs when feeling lonely, and feel less lonely when viewing those programs.
Television competes with friends for your free time and acts as a (poor) substitute. It fills the slot of real relationships so effectively that when your favorite TV shows go off the air, it can be the equivalent of a real life break-up. And more TV only makes you more unhappy.
You do it with your phone:
“The cellphone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong.” This results in reducing one’s desire to connect with others or to engage in empathic and prosocial behavior.
You’re not addicted to your phone — brain scans show it’s more like you’re in love with it. (There are now more iPhones sold than babies born in the world every day.) By stripping away the emotional information in faces and intonation, text messaging might be simulating autism.
Too much computer time can degrade social skills. Research shows Facebook often promotes weak, low-commitment relationships and it’s curated presentation of only life’s best moments can make us depressed. Email can stress you out and turn you into an asshole if you’re not careful.
So should we smash the machines and live like the Amish?
Like I said, it’s all about how you use it. In fact, research shows compulsive internet users have happier marriages. Overall, Facebook users get more emotional support than average.
So how do you get the good without the bad?
Technology can increase happiness and improve relationships if you leverage it to connect with other people:
The results were unequivocal. “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” he says. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” Surely, I suggest to Cacioppo, this means that Facebook and the like inevitably make people lonelier. He disagrees. Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user. “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.” So if social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy. If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.
So don’t just hit the LIKE button. Comment, interact and most importantly, plan face-to-face get togethers.
Your phone can make you happier too. (In fact, there’s an app for that.) Use your phone to make plans to meet with friends in person or to connect with those you can’t see face to face.
And when you’re with friends, put it away. Seeing friends and family regularly is worth an extra $97,265 a year. Whatever you want to check on that phone ain’t worth a hundred grand.
We frequently use technology to replace relationships. This is bad. Technology can increase happiness and improve relationships if you leverage it to connect with other people.
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