Hacking Happiness in the Information Age
Expert tips for cultivating lasting fulfillment
There’s no denying the popularity of consumer technology. We look at our phones about every 12 minutes — that’s 80 times a day! If you’re under 30, it’s more like 150 times, and that’s just our smartphones. If you include tablets, PC’s, video games, and TV, it adds up to over 10 hours in front of a screen each day.
So, if you’re getting your eight hours of sleep a night, you’re awake for 16 hours — and according to these numbers, that means 65 percent of that time is spent looking at a screen. This doesn’t include ‘passive’ engagement with technology, like listening to Spotify or relying on a GPS for driving instructions. That leaves you maybe five hours of time each day when your attention is not dictated by a device.
This begs the question: what might all of this mean for our happiness?
To find out, we spoke with Ellen Petry Leanse, author of The Happiness Hack. Her book relies on innovative neuroscience as well as a 35-year career which has taken her from Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Google to teaching at Stanford University. In studying brain function as it relates to well-being, Ellen has identified specific areas that we all might want to think about if we want healthier, happier, and more successful lives.
Happiness: Is there an app for that?
Often, we reach for our phones out of habit, to pass the time, or even to ignore uncomfortable feelings. As it turns out, happiness isn’t found in any of those places. Here’s what we know about how to cultivate it.
First, we need to stop thinking about happiness as a single monolithic concept. There are different kinds of happiness — and some are more fulfilling and long-term than others:
- Short-term happiness: Psychologists refer to this as “hedonic” happiness, derived from the ancient Greek word for pleasure. This kind of gratification is brief and shallow; Ellen describes it as “tequila shot” happiness.
- Long-term happiness: There’s also a deeper, lasting fulfillment known as “eudaimonic” happiness. Also from Greek, eudaimonia translates into “well-being.” This is the kind of happiness that we feel when we are truly at peace with our lives and ourselves.
Ellen explains, “There are chemical blueprints for different kinds of happiness.” For example, when a friend likes our Facebook status, we might have a flush of positive emotion, but the feeling doesn’t last or nourish us from the inside out. But when we invest in our relationships, contribute, and grow as individuals, we cultivate sturdier fulfillment and contentment.
These two experiences are not mutually exclusive, and having one does not preclude the other. However, we do know that in certain cases, a high level of seeking shorter term happiness can lead to increased stress levels over time.
So, what promotes long-lasting eudaimonic happiness? Before we can answer that question, first we need to learn a bit more about our brains.
Our brains on technology
“Who would we be if we weren’t bombarded by technology all of the time?”
”The sense of being overloaded has become a daily fact of life for most of us, and our bodies have trouble handling it.
“We’re the products of our evolutionary biology,” Ellen says, “and we weren’t created to be so busy.” So, what happens to our brains given the deluge of information and tasks we’re confronted with each day?
Several factors are at play, according to Ellen:
- Our brains constantly scan our environments to keep us safe, creating a composite image of where we fit in. The media (including social media) can paint an unrealistic picture of life, and the gap between that message and our as-lived experience can be painful. Remember, people tend to share highlights, funny pictures, things that are fun and entertaining. You receive these messages at random times in your normal, everyday life, making you wonder why you’re not having as good a time as everyone else.
- We need to go offline. It’s one thing to spend an entire workday in front of a screen — maybe it’s unavoidable. But when we choose to spend so much of our free time with screens, something is lost: downtime. Time away from consuming information and entertainment. Our brains need this offline time to do the backroom processing that often results in asking important, deeper questions about work and life.
- We’re easily driven by social rewards, which are almost always in the short term happiness category. In fact, some technology is designed to exploit that, offering so many doses of affirmation it conditions us to want more.
This kind of stimulation is compelling and for many, very difficult to resist. It’s easy to spend what turns out to be an excessive amount of time with our screens. We end up getting burned out and distracted. In the pursuit of short-term happiness, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for the long-term happiness we really want.
Of course, one remedy is to spend less time using technology. Ellen asks, “Who would we be if we weren’t bombarded by technology all of the time?” It’s an excellent question. She recommends that we test this for ourselves with a simple experiment: resolve to spend one hour of tech-free time every day and see what happens.
Three ways to make happiness happen
If we want to prioritize eudaimonic happiness over the hedonic kind, we have to make some changes to our lives. The specific formula is different for everyone, but Ellen offers three parts of a healthy life that, more often than not, increase long-term happiness.
“It’s a key human driver to feel that we belong. That we’re a part of something bigger,” Ellen reminds us. In a constantly cluttered life, the time we spend with other people is compromised in several ways. Distracted by the constant hum of activity on our devices, we’re barely ‘there’ when we’re sharing time with others. And since we’re thoroughly engaged with tech most of the time, there’s less time to be engaged with our friends and families to begin with.
If this resonates with you, how will you take action on this insight today? When you’re having dinner with your partner tonight, how about turning off your phone. Or maybe schedule a hike to catch up with your best friend. Propose a monthly friends gathering. Join a book club. Whatever you do, focus on the moment and not the the little computer in your pocket.
2) Acts of kindness
Simply put, giving back makes us feel good and gives our lives meaning. “We want to feel like we have an offering to the world,” Ellen explains, emphasizing that “contributing” doesn’t have to mean quitting your job to do community service.
There are so many options. Consider volunteering a day or two a month, or simply going out of your way to do something kind for friends, family, or even strangers. You’ll find you not only increase your own happiness, but the happiness of those around you. And that creates a positive feedback loop that no device can match.
3) Self-nurturing growth
“Deep down, we want to grow — to feel like we’re adding to our experience, and becoming better versions of ourselves,” Ellen shares. “We don’t have to change what we do and turn our lives upside down to grow, we just have to change how we do it. Any situation is a path to growth.”
How can you pursue growth? Journal regularly to make sure you’re checking in with yourself. Consider keeping a “Personal Growth” notebook or commonplace book in Evernote, where you keep track of interesting book titles, article links, and journal entries. Meditate to cultivate more self-awareness. Get out of your comfort zone by attending gatherings or events on topics you’re curious about. Pursue a new hobby. Travel, if possible. Read and research.
A little more happy goes a long way
With all three of these paths to happiness, Ellen reminds us that even small, incremental changes can make a significant difference in our lives, noting that “happiness is not a destination, but a way of traveling.”
Here’s a friendly challenge: write down one action you can take in each of these areas to promote your happiness. Let us know what you decide on in the comments!
Written by Valerie Bisharat on May 29, 2018.