A Personal Guide to Digital Happiness


A tour of some tools and methods for using technology to make us feel a bit better


I had my first Internet dating experience several years ago on Nerve.com -- back when Nerve.com was still the cool place to meet people online. I went on two dates during that initial stint: one with a very attractive music executive who kept sniffing my scalp during dinner, in an effort to see whether we were pheromonally compatible, and one with a slight, pink-haired, anorexic emo guy (I thought the pink hair was kind of hot, but I didn't learn about the anorexia until he ordered broth for dinner, explaining that he needed to lose some weight). At some point on our already-painful first (and only) date, he informed me that he was "kind of a depressive guy." Not particularly surprised, I attempted to empathize by telling him I'd had people close to me who had struggled with depression and was very sympathetic.

He then looked at me and stated firmly, with disdain, "No. You can't understand. I've met people like you. You're one of those happy people."

I've never forgotten that scathing accusation -- that I had the nerve to be happy. I'd never really thought of people in those terms: "happy" or "not." Since that date I've grown increasingly obsessed with the concept of happiness, and judging from the abundance of literature being published on the topic, I'm not the only one: there are books to tell you how to be happier at work, how to use positive psychology to your advantage, and many DIY happiness guides. 

But first, what is happiness? Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, defines it as follows: "Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and positive outlook for the future." He adapts Aristotle's term for happiness, eudaimonia, which translates to "human flourishing" -- a life of purpose and direction -- suggesting that happiness involves striving after our potential, not merely achieving a stagnant state of being.

One question I keep coming back to: How does technology affect our happiness?

One question I keep coming back to: How does technology affect our happiness? As Albert Einstein remarked, "Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it."

Einstein was right: It's not the technology itself that determines our happiness, but rather how we use it. In a 2005 study by happiness researchers at University of California, Riverside; University of Missouri, Columbia; and University of Texas, Austin; happiness was explained as a direct result of genetics (explaining 50 percent of a person's long-term happiness), circumstances (10 percent), and activities and practices (40 percent).

That 40 percent includes our habits and rituals around technology. Do we know when to turn off the smartphone and engage in mini-media fasts? Do we use technology to reconnect and build relationships, or just passively lurk as a virtual voyeur? The study concluded that "only life changes involving intentional activity can be expected to lead to sustainable changes in well-being." In other words, happiness is a dynamic process -- an act of becoming as opposed to a state of existence. As William Butler Yeats put it, "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

Thus, while 50 percent of me may be genetically inclined toward happiness, at least 40 percent of my emotional status is determined by the choices I make -- many of which involve technology. And so, my pink-haired emo friend, I may be one of those happy people, but chances are, you can be too. This guide explores how.

I have developed a sort of "Happiness Architecture" - a framework for digital happiness in three parts: 1) four uses of technology for making us happier, 2) four dichotomies that arise as a result of these categories, and 3) four areas of life and culture that are being transformed by digital happiness.

* * *

Let's begin by looking at four ways technology can make us happier:

1. Identify: Technology has the power to identify networks, relationships, wants, and needs. The statistic thrown around these days is that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of couples meet online, making Internet dating sites such as HowAboutWe critical to the identification of would-be suitors. But it's not just potential romantic partners identified by technology. Startups such as Sonar prove that strangers are really just friends of friends we've yet to meet. Technology identifies opportunities for happiness and fulfillment that would otherwise be left to serendipity.

2. Connect: A study entitled "Very Happy People" found that the one thing that distinguishes the happiest 10 percent of people is the strength of their social relationships. If that's true, then mobile group-chat apps, GroupMe and Fast Society, are making us happier. But whether the connections are long-lasting, like those fueled by GroupMe, or one of Fast Society's short-term flings, these connections foster well-being.

3. Track: Life tracking can have many positive effects on your well-being, on everything from your pocketbook to your health. Startups like Mint, Recycle Bank, and Voyurl can help you track your spending habits, green action, and browsing patterns.

4. Order: Technology has the power to order relationships, schedules, responsibilities, interests, and tasks. We can organize all of our daily deals into one place, collect our thoughts on virtual sticky notes, and order (and even share) the things we love. These virtual tools systematize our lives, creating efficiency and clarity amid the digital and physical noise.

* * *

But technology isn't just a happiness-producing machine. While technology presents opportunities for greater happiness, it also brings some not-so-happy scenarios. So let's examine the four dichotomies of digital happiness:

1. Connect vs. Disconnect: A recent study links social relationships and mortality, concluding that individuals with strong social relationships have a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival compared to those with weaker relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds that of obesity.

So, we've established that connection leads to happiness and disconnection leads to loneliness (or even death), but can too much connection actually impede on happiness? Some people argue for periodic "media fasts," a sort of technology cleanse where one refrains from using as much technology as possible for a set period of time. The Sabbath Manifesto and the National Day of Unplugging are committed to slowing down lives. In the Media and Identity class I teach, I ask my students to abstain from as much technology as possible for as long as possible. Some go cold turkey, while others restrict it to only a single social media channel. One student cut himself off from Facebook for 24 hours and nearly had a panic attack. What is the value of this sort of disconnecting? In solitude, we find stillness. Disconnection can create an "in-between" place -- a sacred space -- that fuels creativity and identity construction, and ultimately makes our re-immersion into the connected life that much richer.

2. Give vs. Take: Indian University professor Edward Castronova has announced the emergence of a "fun revolution," predicting that if the "real world" wants to remain unchallenged (and relevant), it will need to become more fun. Some have declared gaming the future of social media, but is it the future of socialization? Individual success in social gaming is rooted in gift reciprocity. Crops are watered, soil is tilled, and berries are planted, all in the name of neighborly love. Showing gratitude and participating in random acts of kindness are regularly cited as two of the most happiness-inducing activities. Which means there are a lot of virtual farmers experiencing real happiness.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Anna Akbari teaches in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, and is the founder of Splice, Bricoler, and Closet Catharsis.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Cattoo': The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

"Feline art is really popular right now," says a tattoo artist in Brooklyn.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.



More in Technology

Just In