You’ve seen the headlines: Facebook is making us lonely (The Atlantic); How Facebook makes us unhappy (The New Yorker); The social and emotional costs of technology use, and on and on. Apparently, our increasing use of technology is making us depressed, lonely, and unable to read social cues; it’s making us dumber, destroying our memory capacity, and wreaking havoc on our attention spans.
But is this the whole story? There’s increasing evidence that thoughtful product design can actually make us happier. Happier not just in terms of the positive emotions we experience after eating a delicious meal or petting a puppy, but also in terms of our overall satisfaction with our lives, our decisions, and possibly most importantly, our connections with others in the world.
My own search to understand how technology affects happiness started a few years ago after an especially exhausting series of projects. My creative tank was running on empty after taking on projects that demanded every ounce of my mental energy. During this period, I also developed chronic insomnia and spent the better part of two years in zombie-mode during the day and at night hoping that a new combination of sleeping pills or relaxation techniques would finally help shut my brain off for a bit. Nothing ever worked.
Instead of spending my downtime with my friends brainstorming hilarious sitcom premises we would one day write, biking down to the Jefferson Memorial—an afternoon ritual which both energized me and allowed me to clear my mind—or working on personal graphic design projects, I found myself almost subconsciously logging onto social media sites and subsequently getting frustrated and irrationally angry when seeing others who had the energy to pursue some of the best things life has to offer. The truth is, I desperately wanted to switch places with the people in those photos. Rationally, I knew these posts were highly curated life highlights but, you know, the mind is complex thing.
After talking to other designers, entrepreneurs and developers, I learned my story was much more common than I ever expected. s technology really making us unhappy?
Numerous studies have indicated that people who are considered “heavy information and communication technology (ICT) users” report more mental health issues (especially stress and anxiety), poorer quality of sleep, and higher stress levels than control groups who use technology significantly less frequently. According to David Volpi, the best explanation for these data is that the use of technology causes these problems. This makes sense since people who use more technology report more emotional and mental health problems —right?
Wrong, actually—or, at least, there isn’t enough information to draw this conclusion. After all, correlation does not imply causation. The fact that high technology use and high reports of depression occur in the same people does not mean that high technology use causes depression.