The Future of Happiness — A Digital Era Juggling Act
By Amy Blankson.
Technology intersects with our lives constantly, shaping not only our health but also our livelihood. Despite wonderful intentions, in many ways the technological revolution has left us more fragmented and insecure. Software and IT experts have never been busier as they seek to find better ways of processing high volumes of data.
Millennials, a group that should be comfortable with this emerging tech, often find themselves in digital overload. And parents feel exasperated trying to keep track of their children’s online activity, while stressing about their own online identity and privacy. We have amassed an overabundance of data without knowing how to use it or even where it all goes. The data in many ways is disconnected from our daily lives, and when it does emerge, often it’s as a nasty surprise in the form of identity theft or lawsuits.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel saddened by our reliance on technology. Nothing makes that sentiment more real than sitting in a restaurant and looking around at “families” having dinner together. I use “together” loosely because it really appears that four or five individuals are having personal dinners at the same table, each person zoned out on a hand held electronic device. One recent story I heard from an NPR host was that his child drew a family picture and in his hand there was an iPhone. Another woman at a conference I was at joked that her son didn’t even draw her face in the family picture — he drew her as a laptop. It was her wakeup moment.
When I give talks around the country, I see employees in the back row of the conference hall entranced by the shiny screens of their laptops or cellphones (maybe they are all taking notes of me speaking about happiness? I’m an optimist). As tech advances and we accept these changes without pause, I worry that maybe our happiness is getting left behind, moving further down the priority list.
My brother Shawn and I joined forces in 2007 to create our company, GoodThink, as a way to bring the science of positive psychology to life for others. Its focus was to help individuals find happiness in uncertain times using research-backed principles and strategies for sustaining a positive mindset. We traveled to over fifty countries, sharing this research with anyone willing to hear our message; we spoke to farmers in Zimbabwe, school children in Soweto, South Africa, bankers on Wall Street, and even leaders in the White House. However, gradually the questions we heard at our talks began to change. Instead of uncertainty about the economic health of the world, we began to hear concern about how technology is shaping our lives and those of future generations:
“Can happiness keep pace with innovation?”
“Would we be happier without tech?”
“How do we find happiness in spite of all this distraction?”
“How can we teach our kids appropriate tech boundaries?”
I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that the answers to these questions will define our time. These are the questions that undergird the modern family dynamic, that shape workplace efficiency and engagement, and that set the baseline for our interactions and communications with friends.
Technology has come barreling into our lives like a wild stallion in recent years, leaving us with two choices: jump on and hold on for dear life, or let the stallion gallop past (until we realize there’s a lasso attached to our ankles and we are dragged along anyway). For those of us who jumped onto the horse, we are just beginning to realize that we have no idea where the stallion is going . . . and this bareback riding has us exhausted. We are at a crossroads — and in desperate need of a saddle.
How can happiness keep pace with technological development in our lives? As much as we love the novelty and excitement of tech, it’s time for us to take control so that we can harness the speed and power underneath us. For those of us being dragged along, maybe now we wish we were “back in the saddle with a whip and stirrups,” anything to provide some semblance of control since Techbiscuit shows no signs of slowing down. It’s time to choose our adventure: Are we going to succumb to this wild ride as overwhelmed consumers? Or are we going take charge of the future by becoming co-creators in the way that new inventions intersect with our work, our families, and our communities?
If you had asked me a year ago to make a character sketch of someone I thought would have the greatest sense of well-being in the Digital Era, I would have described someone who lived an ascetic lifestyle — a life of self-discipline and denial of worldly pleasures — far off in some remote location, meditating by day and sleeping unhindered by alert notifications by night. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I have since had the opportunity to interview countless individuals from around the world — from the heart of Silicon Valley to the backwoods of Smallville USA, from high powered executives who manage employees around the clock, to stay-at-home moms who rely on electronics to make it through the day, from children born with an iPhone in their hands to individuals in their sunset years who just learned how to use a mouse — and what I learned was this: the individuals who reported the greatest sense of balance and ultimately well-being could be any of these typologies. They might have vastly different experiences with technological devices, but ultimately the most balanced, satisfied, and happy individuals use five key strategies, not just to survive — but also to actually thrive — in the Digital Era:
- First, they stay grounded in the face of distraction.
- Second, they use technology to know themselves on a deeper level.
- Third, they know when and how to use technology to train their brains to reach their full potential.
- Fourth, they structure their surroundings to create a habitat for happiness.
- Fifth, they innovate consciously to enrich the world around them.
The future of happiness is up to us. By intentionally thinking about where, when, why, and how we are using technology, we can begin to actively shape the social scripts and market forces that drive our culture to create the future that we truly want to see.
Amy Blankson is a happiness expert on the forefront of testing new technologies to foster well-being. Amy’s new book, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era, (BenBella, April, 2017), brings her years of experience in happiness research and consulting to deliver a roadmap for those feeling overwhelmed by the wave of technology. She has a BA from Harvard and a MBA from Yale School of Management. She has been called upon by the likes of Google, NASA, the US Army, and the Xprize Foundation to consult on positive psychology strategies.
Excerpt from The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era, (BenBella, April, 2017), by Amy Blankson.