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Why Aren't Screens Making Us a Lot Happier?

Our screens provide us with so much. Why aren't they making us a lot happier?

Katarzyna Bialasiewicz photographee/iStock
Source: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz photographee/iStock

The great news is this: The sky is NOT falling. Despite some of the doomsday headlines, Generation Z is not going to hell in a hand basket. Yet, there is some evidence that American society, particularly young people, are struggling a bit more than in they did in past decades. Arguably, one of the best metrics to assess how we are doing as a society is our happiness level. In terms of happiness, it does appear that societal happiness in the U.S. is either flat or going down.

While there is room for debate about the finer points, the typical way that we use screens doesn't appear to be making us significantly happier overall. This seems a bit odd when we think about it. Our screens provide us with access to basically every movie, TV show, song, book, bit of information that we'd want to know, countless productivity tools, and all of our friends and relatives. Given that they provide us with so much, how is it possible that they aren't making us A LOT happier than before we these technological benefits? While there are many reasons and some are more speculative, I'm going to suggest a few possibilities.

Hedonic Adaptation

As humans, we are fairly adaptive creatures. From an evolutionary perspective, this is a good thing! We wouldn't be here if we weren't highly adaptive. Our ability to adapt also applies to things that tend to give us comfort, happiness, or reduce suffering. Hedonic adaptation (or the hedonic treadmill) describes the process by which we adapt to many positives (and negatives) in life and return to our "set point," or default level of happiness. While our happiness needle can move up or down from this point due to a variety of factors (e.g., going to an amusement park, winning a prize, eating a great meal, getting a flat tire), our happiness level reverts to its set point after a fairly short amount of time.

We can reflect on our own lives to see hedonic adaptation in action. How long did that new smartphone, TV, designer handbag, or car really make us noticeably happier? When it comes to our screens, we may simply get used to all of the power and possibilities that they provide. Like air conditioning, clean water, a reliable car, and a roof over our heads, through the process of hedonic adaptation, we just get used to our screens. In a manner of speaking, we have come to take their many benefits for granted.

The Pros and Cons of Screens Neutralize One Another

I don't have data on this point, but it makes a lot of intuitive sense. We might say this idea has "face validity." The idea is that our screens bring a host of positives and negatives with them. In general, we might not be great at capitalizing on the positives while minimizing the negatives. But we can't have one with out the other. Thus, the many pros of technology are canceled out by the many cons.

For example, while our phones allow us to easily to connect with friends and relatives, they can cause us to disconnect from the people around us. "Technoference" is the term used to describe how our use of the screens can have a negative impact on our in-person relationships. Another term used to capture this problem is "phubbing," which means we snub our in-person companions to look at our phones. Also, while social media offers many benefits, it also opens the door to cyberbullying, social comparison, and trolling. We can't get the benefits of social media without some of those downsides entering the equation. As another example, we can't have the ease of access to information without this also leading us down endless rabbit holes of distraction (e.g., Yes, I do wonder what my favorite child TV star looks like today!).

Our Basic Needs Are Being Undermined

In order be happy in life, we must meet our basic physiological and psychological needs. Our physiological needs include air, food, water, sex, sleep, and physiological activity. According to self-determination theory, our psychological needs include competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Both our physiological and psychological needs are grounded in our evolutionary history. To the extent that we are meeting these needs effectively, we tend to be fairly happy (or "content" might be the more accurate term). Sometimes the ways that we use our screens can help us to meet these needs, but sometimes it can interfere with them.

Let's consider sleep. There's a mountain of research indicating that sleep significantly affects our physical and mental health. Americans, as a whole, aren't getting enough sleep. Teens need over 9 hours of sleep per night, but a paltry 8% of U.S. high school students are getting that amount.

The presence of screens is one of the likely culprits sapping our sleep. Screens can diminish our sleep through a few channels. We might stay up later than we should to watch videos, read the news, play video games, answer email, or chat. For example, many teen boys and young adults seem to be losing sleep because of playing Fortnite into the wee hours. The intense action involved in such games can keep the heart pumping and adrenaline flowing (that's part of the appeal!), but this can make it difficult to disengage and wind down for sleep. Also, the blue light emitted by screens can suppress the production of melatonin, which is involved in the sleep/wake cycle.

Our screen use also might be displacing other basic needs, such as for physical activity. Americans are too sedentary. While perhaps not the most rigorous study, data gathered by folks at indicated that Americans spend more time watching Netflix than reading, exercising, and spending time (in-person) with friends...combined. Yikes!

The Takeaway?

Our screens offer so many benefits that, in a way, it is surprising that they don't seem to be moving our societal happiness needle up near as much as we might expect. The many pleasures and conveniences that they provide throughout the day somehow aren't translating into large gains to our overall happiness compared to prior decades. I've provided a few reasons why our screens might not be making us a lot happier. Arguably, if we learn to use them more effectively, we can "come out ahead." Yet, it's quite a challenge to do this. The pull of our screens is strong and seductive. I'll tackle that more in upcoming blogs. Please stay tuned!

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