Does Technology Make Us Happy?


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My exploration of the intersection of Technology and Happiness. This was the keynote address for the Philly Awards at the 2010 Philanthropy Midwest Conference.

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  • Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to be invited to speak to this group. The work that you all do day in and day out deserves to be celebration and recognition, and I’m happy to be part of that.
    And the work that you do is even more important in this incredibly challenging era we live in. This is an era of pervasive anxiety and insecurity for many. But there’s a paradox, because it’s also an era of some amazing advances, particularly in the field of technology.
    And a few months ago, as I was contemplating what topic I would like to talk about today, a video clip made the rounds that really speaks to this conflict. It became the catalyst for my topic today, and it seems like a good place to start.
  • Some of you have seen this, right?
    And it rings true. We have all this really amazing technology, but we’re not happy.
    For me, this clip was kind of a culmination of a lot of things I’d been reading and thinking about in my personal and professional life. And it lead me to this question:
  • Now you have to understand that for me, merely asking this question amounts to a crisis of faith. In fact, it’s probably outright heresy.
    But it’s an interesting question, for me at least, and I hope that the answers I’ve come up with point to principles that we can all adapt to make ourselves and the people we serve a little happier and our work a little more effective.
    I’ve been a technology enthusiast and evangelist all of my career.
    Name a gadget. I probably either have it or I want it.
  • Because when I think of technology and happiness, I think of images like these. The joy of technology!
    Let’s consider one example: This amazing device provides a soundtrack for my life at home, at work, in the car, on a plane. When I’m running I strap it to my arm, and it not only plays music but it can track my location and my pace through GPS. It’s got pictures of my kids. It has a weight loss application that helped me lose 10 pounds. And it helps me fill all those little blocks of empty time with distractions.
    It’s gotta be a net positive, right?
  • Not according to Nicholas Carr author of “The Shallows.”
    He contends that our addiction to gadgets, our constant distractions and our immersion in a massively hyperlinked, short-attention-span, internet media culture is having a net negative impact on our intellectual acumen and our mental health. It’s making us shallower and more anxious.
    And it’s not just that we’re becoming intellectually lazy or gramatically lax, Carr claims that the time we’re spending in this media world of fleeting stimulae is actually changing the structure of our brains. The changes aren’t just psychological, they are physiological.
    But of course, I didn’t finish the book, so I’m not really sure about that.
    As an aside, I think the same time I was reading this book, a New York Times story came out about changes in the brain during middle age. These changes also makes us less attentive to detail and more distractable. So as a 45-year-old technologist, I’m really in trouble.
    But a key concept in this argument is the idea of neuroplasticity. It’s the notion that our habits of thought and emotion have a physiological effect on the brain.
  • Neuroplasticity is the reason that the guy who drives this London Cab has a bigger hippocampus than you do. The hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with spatial navigation, and MRI scans of London cabbies, show that their brains are more developed in this region than yours or mine.
    It turns out that the neurons in our brains are a lot like muscles. The ones we use develop, get stronger, bigger, grow more connections. The ones we don’t use wither.
    And frequent use doesn’t only strengthen neurons, it makes them more apt to be used. It’s sort of a mind/brain feedback cycle. And it can be a virtuous or a vicious cycle depending on the thoughts in question.
  • A lot of our understanding of neuroplasticity and the mind/brain feedback cycle stems from the Positive Psychology movement. For most of the history of psychology, we’ve been focused on disorders and pathologies. What are the numerous ways that the human mind and brain can break?
    Since the 90s, however, there’s been a growing field of research into happiness. What is it? Why do some have it and others not? Are there physiological components to it? And perhaps most importantly, can it be learned or increased?
  • And some of this research has made its way into the popular culture through a number of books on Happiness and Positive Psychology. Having read a few of them now, there seem to be a few common themes emerging. There are factors that predictably correlate to happiness and there are things that people can do to increase the overall level of happiness in our lives.
    There are also some interesting research into the impact of technology on happiness, and that research jibes with some of the research coming out of the field of Positive Psychology.
  • In September of this year, the British Computer Society published a large, global study on the impact of technology on happiness. They surveyed 35,000 people globally and they found that access to technology had a direct and positive impact on life satisfaction, even when controlling for income and other factors known to influence life satisfaction.
    Simply put – having access to technology does make people happier.
    The impact was most evident in women, the poor and other disenfranchised groups. The study found two primary reasons why technology why technology brings happiness to people, these are two of the things that happiness researchers contend contribute to deep, lasting happiness.
    Here’s one.
  • Did anyone here attend the TEDxKC event or have you seen this video on the TED website?
    OK, so you know what this face is. How about someone who hasn’t seen this video. Can you identify this expression?
    It’s a gamer on the verge of what is called in game parlance and Epic Win. A win so big he didn’t even know it was possible. The eyes are wide, the nostrils flared corners of the mouth curved up in a pre-smile.
    And it’s a great illustration of one of the ways technology makes people happy – Empowerment.
    And this brings us to the first principle that communicators need to embrace in digital technology:
  • As communicators, we’re trained to think in terms of storytelling. Who’s the audience? What’s the message? What do we want them to know, feel or do? But here’s the thing. Storytelling is essential, but it’s not sufficient. We can’t just tell people what to do or encourage them to do it, we have to do everything in our power to enable them to do it.
  • One of the non-profit sites that I think best embodies this principle is Kiva. It empowers people who want to make a difference in the world, people who might otherwise think that their resources are too meager to be meaningful to help other people in signficant ways through microloans.
  • Another key factor found in the BCS study is technology’s ability to strengthen social connections. Strong social connections are another recurring theme in happiness research. People with a solid social network are generally happier than those without. Not terribly surprising, but deeply significant.
  • And this brings us to principle #2 – Be social.
    In the realm of commercial communications, brands are beginning to figure out how to leverage social media in more and more sophisticate ways. Brands are beginning to integrate the Facebook like button into their websites, so people visiting their site can “like” their products. Other brands are extending their ecommerce stores into Facebook. And some have begun exploring the realm of Social CRM, using data analysis to understand who their most influential customers are, so that they can encourage and leverage that influence.
  • Today, Facebook is the dominant platform for our social interactions. There is probably no opportunity larger or more important for non-profits to exploit than figuring out how to integrate Facebook and all of its diverse functions and possibilities into your communication.
    Here’s an example of one of our clients, Sonic Drive-ins, using Facebook to encourage participation in their cause program, Limeades for Learning. With no media support at all this year, just using Facebook, we were able to garner over 1 million votes in x months.
  • Another key to happiness, according to researchers, doing good in the world.
    Earlier this year, when the Haitian earthquake hit, tech-minded volunteers in a number of cities came together in Crisis Camps to see how they could use their skills to help. The result was a number of initiatives like this one, a real-time crisis map of Port-au-Prince, built by volunteers in the US, who aggregated information from all over the Web and mapped it so that responders on the ground could allocate resources. It’s a remarkable story and a phenomenal example of technology being use to alleviate suffering.
  • And it brings us to a third principle: Do Good in the World.
    And since most of you are already in the business of doing good, I want to emphasize the “in the world” part of that phrase.
  • Increasingly, our technology allows us to bring together the digital world and the physical world. And I would argue that it’s in this overlapping space that the most interesting and powerful work is going to be done over the next few years.
    We’ve seen applications like the Good Guide enable consumers to get information about the social and environmental sustainability of products at the point of sale.
    The Causeworld app rewards people with karma points for checking in at locations, like retail stores. These karma points are a sort of virtual currency that can be used to direct donations to charities.
    And just this week, Facebook Places, the new location feature of Facebook’s mobile application, announced a new initiative to reward people for checking in. Brands like The North Face are tying check-ins to charitable donations. If you use Facebook Places to check in at a national park or The North Face retail store, The North Face will donate $1 to the National Parks foundation.
  • The final principle of happiness comes not from the digital world or the physical world, but from the spiritual world. Some of the more interesting research I’ve come across are MRI studies of Tibetan Monks during meditation. The MRI scans reveal a number of important structural differences in the brains of practiced meditators. And other research has shown that regular practice of meditation, prayer or gratitude is an effective practice in increasing happiness.
    So this last principle may be more personal than professional, but I’m going to throw it in.
  • As I’ve been doing my research on technology and happiness, I’ve come across a few companies attempting to tackle the question of whether or not technology can make us happy directly. Like this one. It’s an app called Live Happy, and it includes a number of daily exercises meant to stimulate those portions of our brain that correlate with positive emotion and life satisfaction.
    Like I said, this principle may be one that relates more strongly on a personal level than a professional one, but I hope that if we can use our technology to further our own happiness, then maybe it makes us more effective at reducing misery and increasing happiness of others.
  • Started in 2008 as an initiative of a non-profit called Epic Change. Tweetsgiving. An effort to get people to express their gratitude through Twitter. Became a number one trending topic on Twitter and raised $10,000 for a classroom in Tanzania. Last year, they branched out to YouTube, raised over $40,000 and have now helped to create 2 classrooms and a library.
  • So to return to my original, heretical question. Does Technology Make Us Happy? My answer is “Yes, it can.” If we use it mindfully. We can employ technology to alleviate suffering, to empower people, to build healthy social networks, to do good in the world, to cultivate gratitude and to increase the level of happiness in the world.
  • And finally, I’d just like to wrap things up with a little happy news.
    As I was Googling technology and happiness, I came across the Facebook Gross National Happiness Index. It’s a semantic measurement of the mood of the Facebook population in the US. And if you look at the chart over the last few years, a couple of things become clear. First off, there are dramatic spikes of happiness during the holidays and secondly, the trend line is going up.
    So, we may not live in the happiest of times, but we do seem to be getting a little happier. I hope that trend continues for all of us.
    Thank you very much.
  • Does Technology Make Us Happy?

    1. 1. Everything’s Amazing
    2. 2. Does Technology Make Us Happy?
    3. 3. “IT has a direct and positive impact on life satisfaction even when controlling for income and other factors . . .” Source: The Information Dividend: Why IT Makes You Happier, Sept. 2010
    4. 4. Entertainment Source: TED “Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world”
    5. 5. Don’t just communicate. Empower.
    6. 6. Be Social
    7. 7. Do Good in the World
    8. 8. Cultivate Gratitude
    9. 9. Does Technology Make Us Happy?
    10. 10. Some Good News
    11. 11. Find Happiness Download This Presentation: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom Happy At Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy The How of Happy: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want BCS Study: The Information Dividend: Why IT makes you “happier” TED Video “Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world”