Not a Freudian Slip: The Happiness Trend - A Healthy Pursuit or an Obsessive Quest? – Part 3

Column Editor: Connie Mester, MPH
To learn more about Connie, click here.


Pause for a moment, set down your phone, and think about the level of engagement you have with your device. When out to dinner, where are your phone and your attention? Is it on your dinner companion or your device? When you’re stopped at a red light, do you stay focused on the task at hand or do you immediately pick up your phone to scroll through emails or Facebook?  Ever wonder how this tech overload is impacting your quality of life? Could your digital habits be sabotaging your sleep and impacting your health and happiness?

In Part 1, we discovered how being happy has positive impacts on our health and longevity.  Part 2 revealed that money and a constant pursuit of happiness doesn’t bring more bliss.  This third article reviews research on the impact of mobile devices and social media on our well-being and explores how our digitally connected world has impacted our happiness level. In concluding articles, we begin to shift towards discovering our own personalized path to fulfillment, strengthening skills that enhance our quality of life.

Today, we rarely pause for downtime. The average American spends over three hours1 with their head down looking at their device, touching their phone almost 3,000 times a day.2 We may end up using our phones as a crutch, filling our time with constant stimulation as we surf sites and scroll news feeds, avoiding potential boring or difficult situations. The problem is, daydreaming and being alone with our thoughts allows us to creatively think through problems. And being nose down in our phones doesn’t open up any opportunities to interact with people around us.3 

WHQ-visual_Happiness3_image1_web.pngIsolated in digital platforms, comparing fake portrayals of an always perfect life.

People have become isolated into digital platforms and live their social life inside their devices.  This interferes with social skill development, diminishes the breadth and depth of connections, and lowers relationship quality.4 Digital dialogue has created a barrier for human connection, eroding human touch and laughter. Important non-verbal communication skills are missed in text conversations, and without the sound of a voice or face-to-face interaction, it’s hard to interpret tone, read body language, use active listening skills, or share a smile [not an emoji].

Continued digital socialization not only gives a false sense of connection, it can make people feel socially isolated in comparison5 and induce their fear of missing out (FOMO).6  Comparisons are in our face now more than ever. Facebook posts can leave one feeling jealous, excluded, or inadequate. Our ability to constantly post images (some even digitally manipulated) are not a true representation of reality and give the impression we are living a happier, more connected life.7 This fabricated online identity can increase body image issues and exacerbate the pressure to be perfect.

Another challenge with being constantly connected is the amount of media that crosses our path and the negative impact this barrage of news has on our happiness.  We feel horror and despair when we’re confronted by the relentless violence shared constantly in our news feeds. And toxic news displaying conflict and negative images desensitizes us to violence and chips away at our quality of life. Displaying differences between people, races, and even political party affiliation closes off cooperation and feelings of empathy. An alarming trend is our society’s 40% decline in empathy indicators, much of which is linked to the rise of digital communication technologies.8 Most news is misleading and not directly relevant (other than weather). Just because a story is new, doesn’t it mean it’s relevant or that you’ll have any sort of advantage over the next person by knowing it.

Journalists are trained to create entertaining, fear-inducing news factoids that instill a sense of urgency. However, these panicky stories trigger your body to release cortisol (stress hormone), putting you in a state of constant stress. Elevated cortisol impairs normal functions like digestion, fighting off infection, and healthy cell growth. Instead it activates fear, nervousness, aggression, and pessimism. Online these short story nuggets are algorithmically aligned to your preferences and past behavior, thereby potentially reinforcing your biases and limiting your openness or perspective of alternative points. Unfortunately, this shallow one-sided view not only lessens creativity and depth, it impacts memory and brain function as well.

Constant digital stimulation is competing for our attention and rewiring our brains.
We know good creative flow influences our happiness and that our ability to reach a goal gives us a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. However, the constant digital interruptions from social media derails our train of thought,9 depletes our focus, and decreases our ability to sustain attention,10 ultimately reducing our productivity11 and damaging work quality.12

Multitasking may seem like a more efficient way to progress through tasks; however, frequent task-switching, made possible through mobile devices, has negative consequences. Task-switching might help prevent boredom; however, the constant “superhighway of interference”  inhibits our concentration and comprehension.3 Research has linked multitasking to poor cognition and learning,13, 14 poor academic performance,15 negative mental health outcomes,16 and decreased subjective well-being.17

Digital stimulation is rewiring our brains and causing gray matter areas to shrink, reducing our ability to control impulses, anticipate and consider the future, and regulate behavior.3 The interruptive nature of our always accessible, alerting devices makes resisting the intrusions harder. If our brain is working hard to resist distractions, it isn’t able to simultaneously pay attention, problem solve, or accomplish a goal.18  Our daily web scanning behavior, clicking from link to link, and our reliance on Google to retrieve information uses neural circuits devoted to short-term memory, limits our long-term memory, and diminishes our ability to store and recall information for later use.19

Casting light on physical health consequences.
Technology is a major contributor to Americans’ substantial sleep deficit. A majority of people check their phone while lying in bed,20 and almost 75% of 18-to-44-year-olds sleep with their phones an arm’s reach away.21 The constant noise from pings and buzzing from a smartphone can cause stress and disrupt sleep patterns,22 and the artificial blue light impacts our circadian rhythms, delaying melatonin secretion and thereby preventing our body from producing the chemicals that make us tired.23 Since more than 40% of people in the U.S. report insufficient sleep, and 40 million people suffer from sleep disorders,24 perhaps the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to not have your phone accessible from your bed.

Although technology has made much of our lives easier, many people are experiencing pain after prolonged use of mobile devices in their hands, arm, neck, and back. Look around and you will likely see most people hunched over their smartphones. The two to four hours that people spend looking down at smartphones, now termed “text neck,” stresses the cervical spine and increases degenerative back and neck problems caused by this poor posture.25 Stiffness, numbness, burning, tingling, and cramping in the fingers and forearm can be contributed to “cell phone elbow” or “selfie elbow” and are directly related to mobile phone use behavior. 

WHQ-visual_Happiness3_Image2.pngNow that you are likely sitting up straighter and contemplating where you will store your smartphone while you sleep, consider additional habit adjustments to diminish detrimental health impacts resulting from your smartphone. Staring at screens means we blink 66% less, which can cause digital eye strain, dryness, headaches, and blurred vision.26 Some smartphones have more germs than the bathroom door and toilet seat, increasing bacterial illnesses exposure.27 And the amount of time we spend on our smartphone increases our inactivity and sedentary lifestyle.28

Although there are countless negative consequences to smartphone use, many described above, there is a positive side to this digital story. Devices can extend our social universe and connect us with people beyond our immediate area.  We can maintain relationships or reconnect to those of the past. We can be reminded or prompted to continue healthy behaviors. We can learn new skills and even navigate confidently in an unfamiliar place. Smartphones can easily rally instantaneous support or quickly raise funds, just think “Ice Bucket Challenge,” all of which has a positive impact on our level of happiness.

Dare to detox and daydream.
In the next article, we will go beyond one-size-fits-all happiness improvement tactics and learn how to cultivate character strengths and build traits that help enrich our lives and enable us to thrive. Many of these tactics apply to our digital life as well. Until then, consider a digital detox, like millions of mobile users have done, by switching off.29 Re-establish control over your life on the National Day of Unplugging (March 9-10, 2018).30 Be mindful of your experiences, your surroundings, and the people in front of you, not slumped over in a digital daze and miss it.


Contact Connie at:
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