Entrepreneurs

Pursuing Happiness In A Digital World

The pursuit of happiness can be elusive, but still remains an aspiration for many.  

Since 2012, the world has been celebrating happiness during the month of March, with the United Nations proclaiming March 20th as the International Day of Happiness. Happiness is a profoundly human and subjective experience; and yet, the scientific study of happiness has exploded. Psychologists are interested in understanding how people feel; economists want to know what people value; and neuroscientists seek to understand how the brain responds to positive rewards. Needless to say, happiness can be measured in a variety of ways as a result.

But if there’s one thing that scientific studies agree on it’s the importance of social networks. We are a highly social species. The recently released 2021 World Happiness Report, highlights how one major element in COVID-19 policy has been physical distancing, which poses a significant challenge for people’s social connections. According to this report, people whose feelings of connectedness fell had decreased happiness.  

The Power of Connections

One factor that was identified to predict well-being during the pandemic is the use of digital media to connect. At the outset of the pandemic, companies scrambled to look for IT equipment such as laptops and IT services like Zoom to get a grip of the new digital reality that came overnight. At the individual level, some studies show the increased use of digital communications to connect.  Young people, in particular, increased their digital communications usage compared to other age groups. Similarly,  2020 data from a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey demonstrated that a majority of respondents found social media to be important to remain connected during the pandemic. At the same time, the lack of access to and skills using the internet ie. households not having access to Wi-Fi, or older adults not used to navigating technology, may have exacerbated during the pandemic which puts these individuals at risk. Digital inequality may pose risks to well-being and happiness during the pandemic. 

Digital Technologies and Happiness

These findings, in the context of the pandemic, underscore the ongoing discussion on digital technologies and happiness. In short, digital technology can be a double-edged sword. For some people, the internet can offer a safe, non-threatening place to nurture and maintain social connections.  At the same time, increasing evidence about user surveillance and addictive technologies underlies the harmful effects of digital technologies on happiness.

In 2018, The Pew Research Center queried 1.150 technology experts, scholars and health specialists on the following question: “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?  The result was that some 47% of respondents predicted that digital technologies bring positive effects for well-being; while 32% believed that people’s well-being would be negatively impacted. The remaining 21% predicted little change in well-being compared to now.   The 2018 Pew Research Center report provides a summary of both the positive and negative relations between digital technologies and well-being that emerged.

In this report, some of the areas that digital technologies were thought to have positive effects on well-being are in helping to connect people with each other, tapping into crucial intelligence in real-time to solve health, safety and scientific problems, and in empowering people to improve and reinvent their lives. In addition to the risk of digital addiction and surveillance, digital technologies were thought to negatively impact people’s cognitive capabilities in regards to their capacity for analytical thinking, memory, focus and creativity. Distrust and divisiveness could be amplified, and that information overload and poor interface design could cause an increase in stress, anxiety and sleeplessness.

Do digital technologies make us happier or not? 

It is evident that technology can have both positive and negative impacts on the subjective well-being of individuals. On the other hand, digital technologies provide us with tools.  And it is up to us to decide how to use them appropriately. Indeed, we have a responsibility to leverage digital technologies to mitigate potential negative impacts to well-being.

Technology-Free Sources of Happiness

In the case of Action for Happiness-a movement committed to building a happier and more caring society, the move online from in-person live events and local groups brought some larger-than-expected benefits. “We were able to reach people who are more remote, isolated or socially-anxious; and bring people from different backgrounds/countries together in a same digital space,” explains Dr. Mark Williamson, CEO of Action for Happiness.

And yet, Williamson reminds us that many of our sources of happiness are technology-free. 

In his article, he points to three simple non-digital actions that have been proven to make us happier:

Get active outdoors – walk through the park, get off the bus a stop early or go for a “walking meeting” with a colleague.

Take a breathing space – regularly stop and take 5 minutes to just breathe and be in the moment – notice how you’re feeling and what’s going on around you

Make someone else happy – do random acts of kindness, offer to help, give away your change, pay a compliment or tell someone how much they mean to you.

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Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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