A Personal Guide to Digital Happiness

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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.

Relinquishing privacy is at the core of social media's recipe for success. Please Rob Me, whose tagline is "Raising awareness about over-sharing," highlights the danger of checking in to places, and thereby publicly broadcasting that you're not home. The assumption is the more information you give up, the more you'll "get" in terms of information, entertainment, and points of connection. But what do we risk in this exchange? And does that "get" produce more happiness than what we're at risk of losing?

3. Shallow vs. Deep: In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam famously argued that there has been a decline in social capital in the U.S., which he attributed to fewer in-person interactions and more "individualizing" of our time, as a result of our engagement with technology.

But is this decentralization of contacts and interaction a bad thing? Does having a larger pool of weaker ties really erode social capital? Our larger, weaker ties are equally important, as they connect us to people we don't know and offer a larger pool to pull from via the "Three Degrees of Influence Rule" -- in other words, our friends' friends' friends directly affect us, and vice versa. This includes the spread of emotions, which have been shown to have a contagious quality. Studies show that having happier friends and relatives is a greater predictor of happiness than having more money. Interaction -- be it in-person or technologically mediated -- is central to creating contagious happiness in both strong and weak ties.

We are now able to stay knowledgeable and feel connected to an event, without ever getting our hands dirty.

4. Active vs. Passive: Marshall McLuhan argued that the printed word offered man the "gifts" of detachment and noninvolvement, or "the power to act without reacting." We are now able to stay knowledgeable and feel connected to an event, without ever getting our hands dirty. We are part of the movement! -- without actually moving. Recent "Twitter revolutions" have brought new meaning to McLuhan's words. These social media users are technically "in action." Is this the new face of "activism"? Malcolm Gladwell states that "where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools."

"Liking" a charity on Facebook seems to exemplify this statement. We have all become "participants" in social action via social media -- but that participation requires very little motivation, risk, or personal investment. What is lost via this type of "activism"? What is "active social media"? I suggest we rethink not only the relationships mediated by technology, but also our relationship with social media and its vast potential for large-scale movement and change. A new study suggests a link between political activism and well-being -- that is to say that activism can breed happiness. But can we be passive activists who prefer the comfortable complacency of a charity-related retweet to attending a local charity Meetup or protest and still reap the happiness rewards?

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So where does this leave us? How will life and culture change as a result of the new ways we have of relating to one another?

1. We must rewrite the rules of etiquette: Emily Post couldn't have anticipated the extent to which electronic media would challenge the rules of engagement. My mother -- the poster-woman for propriety -- bought me a copy of the 1997 edition one Christmas. And only a decade later, it's comical to flip through and see how much has changed. The Emily Post Institute website no longer exclusively offers antiquated 20th-century advice, but rather has an extensive section on technology-related manners. Here's what they have to say about "De-Friending":

You may find a time when it is necessary to de-friend - your list is too big, you've had a falling-out/break-up, or someone has been harassing or bothering you. Similarly to denying a friend, it is up to you whether to send a message or not. If you choose to send a message, there's no reason to be nasty, or to get too detailed, just simply state your reasoning, and that you hope the other party can understand.

Jimmy Kimmel has created a day for just this: National Unfriend Day.

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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