Does Using Your Phone Increase Your Happiness?

Understand a key way in which your phone controls you and what to do about it.

Posted Aug 10, 2020

One of the myths about the digital age is that we spend time on our phones because we enjoy them. The truth is that we spend time on our phones because we feel compelled to. 

Notifications: Your Frequent Purveyor of Dopamine …  

How can you transcend the dopamine-seeking behavior that keeps you touching your phone, on average, over 2,500 times per day? The first step to regaining control over your devices is to turn off all app notifications. My own life is much calmer now that I’m not experiencing frequent dopamine releases throughout the day as a result of hearing stop-what-you’re-doing-right-now-and-pay-attention-to-me-yes-you sounds 24-7 from my phone. As David Greenfield, the director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addictionshares about smartphone sounds, “That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us.”  

I asked Greenfield to explain in detail how this process works. He shared:  

The thing about a notification is that it’s letting you know through anticipatory dopamine release that there might be something there. [The] anticipation of pleasure actually elevates dopamine at an even higher level than the actual pleasure itself … that blip of dopamine is letting you know that you want to check the phone … that’s part of what compels us to do it, over and over and over again with no end in sight because you never get enough of it … Notifications are one of the most dangerous aspects of the smartphone because you’re chasing the high. Most addictions are really chasing that original hit that you got that [you] might have liked at one point and now you’re just chasing it forever. 

Photo by 7Shifts on Unsplash
Is this our happiness drug?
Source: Photo by 7Shifts on Unsplash

It’s not only the noises your smartphone emits, but turning off notifications entirely that is critical to reclaiming any semblance of peace in your life. 

Mark Williams, the psychologist and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, incisively explains how our busy lives keep us in a perpetual state of tense arousal:  

What we know … from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food … is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on sort of high alert all the time … biologically, they’re rushing around just as if they were escaping from a predator. 

And Distraction 

Not only are you running around in a constant state of high alert and anxiety, but if you check your phone often, or hear or see buzzes, rings, or messages popping up all the time through push notifications, you end up so distracted that you can’t focus on anything substantial for any extended period of time.  

And contrary to what you may believe, multitasking simply. Does. Not. Work. Research has uncovered that attempting to do two tasks at once takes longer than performing them one at a time, burns more cognitive energy, and hence wears down the brain—which causes more stress and produces more mistakes. As the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham notes, “One of the most stubborn, persistent [aspects] of the mind is that when you do two things at once, you don’t do either one as well as when you do them one at a time.” It is for this reason that multitasking has been found to be a poor use of time.  

Perhaps, for this reason, a study conducted by the late Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues found that adult media multitaskers exposed to multiple streams of electronic information simultaneously do not remember facts or solve problems very well. Why? They become unable to prevent irrelevant information from surfacing in their minds. In other words, they become so highly distracted that they cannot concentrate effectively on what’s most important—leading, in the words of Nass and his colleagues, “to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability.” 

The Choice Is Yours 

What does this all mean? That you have a choice to make. Option A is to allow constant notifications to disrupt your capacity to concentrate, to be fully present with the people you care about, and to move the needle on important career projects. Option B: simply turn them off. Without the constant pings reminding you to stop doing something that matters to you and to instead pay attention to the social and cognitive information that thousands of app developers believe is more important for you, you will take a not-so-small step in reclaiming your freedom. 

Once your notifications are turned off you will be forced to make a decision about how often you will check your phone. You will have to ask yourself some tough questions about how your values will guide your use of technology.  

The feelings of self-control and self-efficacy that will come from directing how you use your phone rather than having it direct you for a minute longer will extend to many areas of your life, including your most important relationships. This quarantine, with the hours it provides to reflect on your life and what gives it meaning, is precisely the time to make such changes.  

By developing healthier habits with respect to how you use technology, you will rescind your membership as a card-carrying member of the head-down tribe. Instead, you will walk the streets of your community as a free human being with the presence of heart and mind to develop the relationships that will nurture you and the people around you into a more socially robust and meaningful future. 

Have you uncovered any strategies that enable you to preserve your well-being vis-à-vis your devices? Please let us know in the comments so others struggling with this issue can benefit from your experience.