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.

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.

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