A Personal Guide to Digital Happiness

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

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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.

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?

* * *

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.

The netiquette rulebook is still being written, and our embodied interactions are equally in flux. Young people are increasingly reticent when it comes to face-to-face interactions. What does it mean to be present? Phones are placed on the table or bar, a third party, ready to disrupt the scene at any moment.

Technology changes our social expectations, as well as our more intimate ones. Where do virtual relationships, flirtations, verbal exchanges, and cybersex fall on the cheating continuum? Ask your significant other that question; it tends to bring up a rather interesting (and passionate) debate.

2. We are rethinking how we mobilize and incentive people: Different types of activities can facilitate or inhibit a "flow" state. Browsing Facebook is a type of passive leisure that is satisfying for only about 30 minutes, after which it creates "psychic entropy" -- apathy, listlessness. Active leisure, on the other hand, like games and sports, takes more effort, but is more satisfying. Jane McGonigal argues that we create our own happiness by focusing on intrinsic rewards that result from self-motivated, self-rewarding activities, like alternate reality games. One such game, Chore Wars, is a digital platform used to motivate members of your household or office to complete real world tasks and chores. Each completed chore earns experience points or virtual loot, all of which can be traded in for real-world rewards, such as rounds of drinks or coffee runs.

3. We are redefining our limits and boundaries: Where do we end and technology begins and vice versa? University of New Hampshire communications professor Joshua Meyrowitz claims that our sense of place is disrupted and reorganized by electronic media, as it transports us and creates boundary-less intimacy. I am simultaneously here and there. I am me, but I have a sense of connection with people and places beyond my immediate context. We are on a connection journey that happens through the symbiotic relationship of in-person encounters and electronically mediated interactions.

4. We are transforming our sense of self: We leave a permanent, virtual legacy, which increases our visibility. Michel Foucault, ever interested in surveillance and the relationship between power and knowledge, argues that visibility is a trap, and that the more visible we become, the more we open ourselves to external surveillance and thereby relinquish power. I think it's safe to say he would have hated Facebook.

* * *

We now experience a new multiplicity of self. We are at once an embodied, singular presence, and yet our image is replicated and working for (or against) us across the web. We need tools and methods for thinking about this new reality, and for making it work for us. And so, I invite you to use the categories I have outlined here, and go forth and construct a consciously mediated life that optimizes your sense of well-being, complete with ups and downs, and periods of hyperconnectivity and unplugging alike. In the words of Bob Ross, "We don't have mistakes here, we just have happy accidents." So don't worry, be #happy.

Image: Leo Blanchette/Shutterstock.

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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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