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Technology Steals Your Happiness - Here's How
May 1, 2017
Our World Today
The rate of progress in the world of technology is incredible. It was only a few decades ago that hardly anyone owned a computer. Now, more than 3 out of every 4 Americans have a smartphone (Pew Research Center).
This technology has helped us tremendously. Businesses can run more efficiently, information is available to us 24/7, and with websites like Ebay and Amazon, shopping is easier than ever before.
However, the quick rise of technology has come with a number of side-effects. The rest of the world has never been so close to us - and yet our best friend sitting right beside us has never seemed so far away. Extended families spread across the country have never had more communication - and yet our immediate family within the household has never been so disconnected.
"For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families."
-Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook
Technology is a beautiful tool, but much like nails and hammers, these tools can inflict great pain to ourselves and those closest to us if we do not use them appropriately.
The Facebook Fallacy
In 2013, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study to determine if frequent Facebook users reported feeling lower levels of happiness than less frequent users. 82 randomly selected participants completed a set of questionnaires prior to the experiment to determine their levels of depression, self-esteem, and reasons for using Facebook.
The participants were messaged 5 times per day over a period of 14 days. Each message contained a link to an online survey where the participants would answer five questions on a slider scale of 1-100. The questions were:
How do you feel right now?
How worried are you right now?
How lonely do you feel right now?
How much have you used Facebook since the last time we asked?
How much have you interacted with other people "directly" since the last time we asked?
The five times per day each participant was required to answer these questions was represented as T1, T2, T3, T4, and T5. The time periods between surveys were expressed as T1-2, T2-3, etc.
With their findings drawn from 4,589 total observations, the researchers concluded, "Interacting with Facebook during one time period (Time1-2) leads people to feel worse later on during the same day (T2) controlling for how they felt initially (T1)."
Furthermore, while increased Facebook use caused decreases in happiness, the study showed that "direct human interaction" led to increases in happiness.
Scientists have a number of theories as to exactly why this occurs. Perhaps the clearest answer is that our time spent on social media is taking away from the time we would otherwise spend in "direct" conversation with people. In other words, social is taking away from a happiness-inducing activity.
Another theory is that social media is a happiness-sucking activity in and of itself. The test subjects in the University of Michigan study said they were 2-3 times more likely to share good news about their lives on social media than they were to share bad news. This is important because it demonstrates that what we see of people's lives on social media is not an accurate reflection of their actual life. We see all of the failures and shortcomings of our own lives, and then we go on social media and see series of carefully curated happy moments, and we sometimes mistakenly accept these moments as reality, and conclude we are less happy than our friends.
It is important to note that these findings are not superstition or a fluke, and many major publications have spoken out about this issue, including Forbes, The New York Times, and NPR. NPR reached out to Facebook about the University of Michigan study specifically, but received an automated reply. It appears this is on the short list of things the social media behemoth doesn't want to be "shared."
Additionally, Nike recently released a satirical video series on Youtube titled "Time is Precious," where a Siri-like voice narrates through the time we waste staring at our screens.
This serves as proof that the harms of social media are not merely recognized by old Luddite or Amish people fighting technological advancement, but by some of the most successful people and organizations in the world. New York Times Best-Selling authors Gretchen Rubin and Tim Ferris highlight the dangers of too much electronic usage in their novels and podcasts. 5-time Super Bowl Champion head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots has often mocked social media in his interviews, saying, "I'm not on SnapFace and all that...I'm really just worried about getting our team ready to go. I'm not too worried about what they put on Instachat."
Belichick's comments may have been a bit much - but his point remains clear: Social media and other electronics distract many people from achieving the things that are truly important to them.
What is most important to you? Your family? Your friends? Religion? Your career? Health? Different people will have different opinions on how these should be ranked, but these are all very respectable priorities.
This is what we say our priorities are. Here's the issue: our actions tell a completely different story!
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Americans' (15 years of age and older) #1 use of time outside of their job/school and sleeping was "Leisure and Sports," which consumes about five hours per day. However, the Department of Labor's statistics show that only 6% (18 minutes) of that time is spent on exercise, and only 14% (41 minutes) was spent on socializing and communicating. The #1 use of time was television, which consumed 56% (2 hours 47 minutes) of free time.
There is nothing inherently wrong with social media, television, or our other electronics - but like Hershey's chocolate or a glass of wine, it's something that you should only consume in moderation. Hershey's chocolate and wine have certain nutrients that help our body - but no healthy diet would center around them. Likewise, electronics have a number of benefits, but no fulfilling life is centered around them. Too much of these things is simply unhealthy. If electronic use affected our bodies the way chocolate does, most of America would look like Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka!
Perhaps you're reading this and thinking that your life is different or special in some way such that these facts and principles don't apply to you. And perhaps you're right. You know your life better than I do. But most Americans would benefit from making some habit changes regarding their technology.
Dropping the amount of time you spend on t.v. or social media can seem daunting, so let's start with a very small step. Let's not change the amount of time you spend on your devices at all - let's just spend that time more intelligently.
For example, if you're watching t.v., invite your spouse, family or friends to watch with you. Make it a social activity that you can talk about and bond over. Perhaps you could start a habit of walking on a treadmill while you browse social media. Or maybe you pick up the phone and call your best friend instead of texting them (in the University of Michigan study, phone calls qualified as "direct human interaction," which increased happiness). Any one of these suggestions will contribute to your happiness. Try it for just a few days, and see how you like it. If you complete the experiment and find it doesn't work for you - I'm sorry, and I believe you. But the only way to find out is to try, and the potential upside is much greater than the potential downside.
Taking a slightly bigger step, you could monitor your activity on your devices and very slowly decrease the amount of time you spend on them. Download an app usage tracker on your phone (they're available for free) and simply monitor your activity. This can be done in 30 seconds. In fact, how about you stop reading this and download one right now?
You don't have to change anything yet - just monitor your activity. Do this for one week. At the end of the week, identify the least helpful app(s) you used, and cut 10 minutes per day from it. Just 10 minutes. Continue to do these each week for four weeks, finding a new app to cut 10 minutes from each week. If you successfully get to the end of this experiment, you will be saving 4 hours and 40 minutes per week - just by taking away small 10 minute increments one at a time! This is a great way to slowly peel the Band-Aid off. You won't notice any pain - but you'll certainly notice the benefits!
I understand that you may be skeptical or even hostile to this idea. And again, I recognize that you may in fact have good reason to feel that way. But the only way you'll ever know is if you try. And most of the successful, happy people out there recognize the benefits associated with this kind of behavior. This isn't your mom trying to convince you to try asparagus - this is your friend trying to convince you to try Starbucks. Join the movement and give it a shot.
If you remain unconvinced of anything you've read thus far, you at least deserve to know who you are pledging your allegiance to - and who those people are pledging their allegiance to (hint: it's not you!).
Our company is always looking for innovative ways to connect our users and bring them more information than ever before.
That's a piece of propaganda that has been stated by various companies in some form or fashion. But here's the truth: Tech companies are trying to find tricky ways to interrupt your day and change your experience on their devices whether you want them to or not. They aren't serving you, they're just using you for your market value, and their actions reflect it.
When I was doing my own social media detox, I decided I would always log out of my apps. That way, instead of mindlessly entering Facebook or Instagram, I would have to take a few seconds to sign in - and those seconds allowed me to stop and ask, "Do I really want to open this, or do I have something more important to do?"
Realizing that cell phones were interrupting their lives, many people took up this same habit. And instead of respecting these people's desire for moderation and control, Facebook tried to manipulate them and bring them back.
In 2016, Facebook introduced a new "one-tap" login feature, where users could simply tap a button rather than typing their username and password. Then Facebook took things a step further, displaying the number of notifications in a small circle on the application logo. Closing the app is no longer an effective method for distancing yourself from Facebook - now you can't even look at the app icon without seeing your notifications.
Facebook also tries to manipulate users in the Messenger app. Upon installation, the user is asked a number of questions regarding the merging of their cell number and their cell phone contacts with the Messenger app.
The first concern here is simply the information Facebook is asking for. Regardless of where you stand on Facebook usage, I think we can all agree that we have Facebook "friends" who we would never give our cell phone number to!
Second, Facebook is not innocently asking to make life easier for you as they seem to imply. The market for social media advertising exceeds $31 billion, so they have great incentive to gain more of your time and information. Not only that, but they are trying to trick you!!!
If you look at these images closely, you will notice that all of the actions consenting to Facebook's desires are placed towards the center of the screen, and highlighted in a blue rectangle. Meanwhile, the actions refusing Facebook's desires are placed at the edge of the screen, and they are not highlighted in any color at all! These prompts are designed for you to overlook to second option. Additionally, this second option only says "Not now," as opposed to, "No, never," as Facebook will occasionally require its users to re-log into the Messenger app and answer these questions again.
Facebook is not our only dear friend who is putting their own interests before those of their customers. Unfortunately, Apple is among their ranks as well.
"The Minimalists," stars of the 2016 Netflix sensation Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, recently expressed their praise for a new app by Dopamine Labs called Space. This app gives users "a moment of Zen" before opening the apps they self-select as being distracting or addictive so they can make sure using that app is actually in their best interest. The purpose of the app is to help people spend their time wisely.
Google jumped on board, and in just a few months over 10,00 Android users have downloaded the app. But Apple didn't allow it. Apple denied their users access to a valuable app for the sake of their own selfish interests.
In April 2017, CBS brought neuroscientist and founder of Dopamine Labs, Ramsay Brown, onto their show 60 Minutes to talk about cell phone addictions and what they are doing to fight it. Ramsay said that after presenting the Space app to Apple, they responded by saying, "any app that would encourage people to use other apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store."
Ramsay and his colleagues, including former Silicon Valley insiders, also mentioned that social media companies will hide "likes" and other interactions to give them to you in bigger bursts that will increase your activity on their app. Ramsay says, "They're holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here's the 30 likes we didn't mention from a little while ago. Why that moment?...there's some algorithm somewhere that predicted, 'hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231 we think we can see an improvement (more engagement) in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.' You're part of a controlled set of experiments...you're guinea pigs."
In an attempt to get the other side of the story, CBS reached out to technology companies to contribute their thoughts on the matter, but without any success. In the episode, CBS said, "We reached out to the biggest tech firms but none would speak on the record."
As I stated previously, all of our technologies can serve a functional purpose in designing a happy and successful life. However, to use them successfully requires diligence on our part, or else we lose sense of our priorities and join the millions of "guinea pigs."
To social media companies, that is all we are. We are guinea pigs. But that is a lie. You are not a guinea pig. You are a human being of infinite value and potential. And by stepping away from your devices, you will have more time to achieve that potential and rediscover what is truly important to you.
This isn't about saying "no" to technology. This is about saying "yes" to better life.