Health, Happiness & Smartphones

Photo by Collins Lesulie
As technology continues its tsunami-like assault on society, how do we adjust and adapt? How do we create a happy place in our heart that sustains us in life? I believe this is an important consideration at this time, as our society moves through this turbulent time. Allegedly, the silicon world of bits and bytes, of chips and devices, was here to make life easier. And yet, here we are, drowning in a sea of information.

How did we let ourselves believe that those who create chips and laptops and phones were also equipped to understand and cope with the disruptive social revolution that was to come. They are techies, not social engineers. It is we who must learn to surf the waves of this new reality, and make changes if need be.

So what do we know now? For one, there is simply too much information to keep up with. Let's look at photos. Since the arrival of the digital photo era, we've become happy snappers of everything that moves, caring less about what makes a good photo. When necessary, we download our photos into the blackhole of drives and clouds that exist somewhere.  I suppose the thought in the back of everyone's mind is that someone will come and save us with some new app. Maybe they will. Apple's recent revision to Photos is certainly a step in the right direction. But let's face it, the time allotted to one human life does not allow for the time to manage such things. We also know that something is off balance. The time we have to ourselves and our families is not enough. Work has become too much of our lives.

My point is that the whole of life has been forever altered by the digital age. Once, as you may know, life was simpler, and it was not so long ago. Some of us know that simpler life because we have stood in both times, and believe me, they are different. I'm thankful for my childhood because it was lived in that more simple time. There was a time when reading required a book or newspaper, when writing required a pencil or pen, when music was on albums and played on record players, and when pictures were taken with cameras and you had to develop your film.

It was exciting to go down and pick up your pictures and look through them for the first time, and it was exciting to open up an album, put the vinyl on your record player, and hear it for the first time.  If you were lucky there was a poster inside and you could hang it up on your wall. There was a physicality to that world, more connected to our sense of touch. As kids, we used to play outside all day and I hated coming in. I cried sometimes when I was told I had to come into the house. It was so disappointing to me. What has happened to that slower life we had?

We're only beginning to understand what the changes driven by high technology mean to our way of life. If we had hindsight or a time machine, perhaps we could have seen what was to come. But how could we have imagined at the turn of the century (2000), what life would be like today. Today, we use a device that fits in one hand to communicate with millions of people instantly, map trips, gather information, purchase stuff, sell goods and services, manage enterprise systems, create art, design solutions, manage projects, and so much more. That's cool, I guess, but is there a cost?

When I look at a society or culture, the measure I use to evaluate its health is happiness. To me this is something visible. You can see happiness. When I go to meet a new consulting client, the first I like to do is walk through the offices and cubicles and observe the energy in the house. It's really not that difficult to see if people are having a good time.  Even the level of sound tells you something.

What I see today concerns me. How could we have predicted seeing people in the streets, blindly moving forward without even noticing their surroundings. If someone had been on the moon or Mars for the last 15 years and just returned, they might have thought we'd gone crazy or lost our minds. Is this a good thing? Are smartphones making us happier? I don't see it on the faces in the streets and I don't see it in the faces of people on mass transit when i commute. In fact, I can hardly see their faces because most are looking down into their screens. Mostly, they are mostly blank.

Another sign of the times we live in is the lack of time to reflect on what is happening to us. The combination of a constant flood of information, both desired and relentlessly pushed in our face (think ads), and the lack of time to put all this into perspective, has consequences we can't see, as university professor Elizabeth Dunn shares.

“Smartphones undoubtedly make our lives easier," says Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, who studies the ways that mobile technology can support or undermine well-being. "Having the entire store of human knowledge at our fingertips is pretty useful, Dunn adds, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia." But there are trade-offs for that convenience.

"Mobile technology also has the power to negatively influence our health and happiness," says Dunn. "Our lab has gone looking for pros, but in general we keep finding cons." At their worst, research finds smartphones can mess with our sleep, stress us out and monopolize our attention. One suggestion is to not use smartphones in the evening because they mess with our sleep patterns. Keeping them close to the bed can be an issue, if you find yourself using it rather than relaxing.

Another study showed that people of all generations have succumbed to FOMO, the fear of missing out. This spectacle can be seen playing out on the streets, heads tilted downward, staring into one’s hands, moving about like characters from the walking dead. It is also seen in the constant online updates on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and so on, and in this obsession with liking things to death. The psychological impact is still unknown, but I suspect we all know what we're not saying, that this is not really good for us. Staring at screens for hours and hours a day, good for us? No, I don't think so. What of all the time we've lost with nature, the great playground and teacher?

On a social level, we can see the impact. Neurosis is on the rise in a big way.  People have fears of missing out (FOMO) and fears of not being liked (FONBL). One thing I can tell you as a psychologist is that it is difficult to be happy when you live in fear. Such moments of life are not lived in the present moment. Such a preoccupation is not good for our society. It's like the old commercial: a mind is a terrible thing to waste." I tweak that and say: time is a terrible thing to waste. Are we wasting our time, the most precious commodity we have in life? If so, then we simply do not understand the value of time. That's true for all of us to some degree, but for some far too much.

Since I've made this article about happiness, let me share some ideas of what creates happiness in our lives from a movie about happiness: Hector and the Search for Happiness.
  • being with the people you love
  • knowing your family lacks for nothing
  • doing a job you love and feeling useful (purpose)
  • having a home and a garden of your own
  • being loved for who you are
  • feely truly alive
  • knowing how to celebrate
  • caring about the happiness of those you love
  • having someone to love
  • loving someone
  • feeling that we matter
And here's another view of happiness. Denmark is consistently ranked as the happiest country in the world. Why? Here are some important aspects of their society.

  • free childcare
  • free healthcare
  • free university
  • $20 minimum wage 
  • $33 hour work week

What do all these things add up to? When I look at this list, I notice two major influences to their society, when compared to ours. Not having to worry about the cost of childcare, healthcare, and education is far less stressful. Since they work less than we do, they have more time for family and yourself. With so much less stress, and so much more time, people feel more free.

Yes, I do feel that we need to move more toward their way of life. That's up to us. We can choose to change our way of life if we wish. But what can we do here and now. When you're trying to change something, it's always good to start with an honest assessment. Start by putting some time aside to reflect on how your life has changed from the influence of technology. Then ask yourself a few questions to assess where you are in life.
  • How much time do you spend with nature, with family members?
  • How much time do you spend simply reflecting on life?
  • How much time do you spend allowing the business of life to settle and the mind to rest? This is quiet time, time spent in silence, maybe on a walk or in meditation (sitting in silence).
  • How much time do you spend on screens? (your devices will tell this nowadays)
Then ask yourself this. What of this change feels right to you, like good change? What of this change is about growth and personal development, and building relationships, change that is helping you live more in the present moment? Keep that part.  And then, what of this change has taken you in the opposite direction? Make a plan to change that, change direction. Either stop it or be consumed by it.

If you’d like to read the full story and know more about the research mentioned, see the Disconnected article by Kirsten Weir in the APA’s (American Psychology Association) Monitor on Psychology, the March digital edition. My suggestion is to use moderation in the use of smartphones, and chill out! Being liked is not like, you know, the ultimate meaning of life!

Hans Kuendig, PhD, Organizational Psychologist


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