February 24, 2024

The general state of society’s unhappiness appears to be growing, and there seems to be no end in sight. One question that continues to cause alarm is whether technology—and the use of smartphones in particular—is the cause of such mounting unhappiness.

Dr. Kostadin Kushlev is an assistant professor and researcher at Georgetown University who investigates how constant connectivity affects societal’s health and well-being. He is the lead investigator at the Digital Health and Happiness Lab (aka the Happy Tech Lab), a part of Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology. Kushlev provides us with some startling revelations and reflection points to consider.

“Happiness is definitely a loaded term,” he mused. “Even we researchers who study happiness admit that happiness is something individual people can define for themselves. But, in order to study it scientifically, we need to define it, and so most commonly, the way we define happiness is with the term ‘subjective well-being.’”

Kushlev points out that at its core, happiness has three components. There is life satisfaction—a cognitive part of happiness, in essence, how we evaluate our lives—as well as two types of emotional components (positive and negative feelings) that, when put together, make up our happiness.

Whether we choose to live our lives in a hedonic way—experiencing as much pleasure and positive emotions as possible—or whether we want to live it in a more meaningful and self-actualized way (sometimes referred to as eudaemonia) is really at the heart of our happiness.

“But when you look at the data,” said Kushlev, “those two things—eudaemonic well-being and hedonic well-being—are very highly correlated. For most of us, when we know that what we do is meaningful and important, it translates into having more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions in our daily life, thus evaluating our lives more positively. So, they’re very highly correlated.”

So how then does technology improve or get in the way of our happiness?

“It’s about as harmful or as beneficial as eating potatoes or wearing glasses,” joked Kushlev.

One might expect that society should be happier and that we should see positive effects with the use of technology and smartphones. But Kushlev and his research team observed that the net result is close to zero.

“At the end of the day, we’re not actually happier,” he suggested with a tinge of irony.

Take, for example, Kushlev’s research on various happiness and technology hypotheses, including displacement, interference, and complementary theories.

What might we be doing with our time, given we know we spend a certain amount of daily effort on our phones? Many of us are amazed at how many hours a day our screen time is when it otherwise could be spent on things like exercise, sleep, or face-to-face community engagements. As a result, a guilt-like complex can manifest. We choose the phone and displace more beneficial activity selections, which do not contribute to increased happiness.

“We know that one of the biggest predictors of happiness is actually spending time with others and especially friends and family,” remarked Kushlev. “But when our attention gets directed to our phones rather than our friends and family, we derive less sense of a meaning.”

As we begin to open up more offices and hybrid work becomes the norm for many—but not all—organizations, the technology-happiness relationship should be at the top of a leader’s list of questions to consider.

“I think what we have learned is in-person is better than virtual,” said Kushlev. “But we have also learned that the hybrid model can be quite useful. Research on the hybrid workplace even before the pandemic suggests that hybrid can be the best of both worlds.”

Any leader wondering if technology is helping or harming one’s happiness at work should consider the necessary balance of face-to-face and remote work with the technology itself. As I have stated in this column on numerous occasions, true happiness—indeed, workplace engagement—is, in part, a factor of how an organization balances the use of technology with its culture, purpose, strategy and face-to-face methods.

Check out the interview with Dr. Kostadin Kushlev in full below or via the Leadership NOW podcast.


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