Does technology make you happy?

Still in Italy. Here is a post from last year that was a follow-up to the entry that was reposted yesterday.

Lets think about technology for a moment. Here I am typing on this laptop. Ideas flow (misspelled and grammatically incorrect) from my brain to my fingers to the keyboard ... over a wireless network ... into the vast ethereal space (known as the internet) ... to your home/workplace/café.

So what good is any of it?

You exclaim ... that's preposterous. Technology is good.

You would then continue ... All these gadgets and gizmos, they're good on many fronts. They make us live longer, they help us to fulfill our true inner potential, they make life easier and BTW I just got this really cool game on my x-box.

But lets step back for one second. I can see the part about living longer. Fulfillment ... I'll let you have that argument too. Games? Sure I won't argue with that (for now). But making life easier. I fully and utterly DISAGREE WITH YOU.

You see we all think that technology is helpful. If only I had X, Y and Z, I could finnish this boring job and go off and enjoy life.

But it didn't work out that way.

What ended up happening is that instead of getting you job done sooner, MORE IS EXPECTED OF YOU. How could you ever tell your boss, I had a tough day, it's hard work doing X, Y and Z? Now with your laptop, your microarrays and all other technological gadgets your expected to perform X, Y, Z ... the rest of the alphabet AND a couple of greek letters. Anything less and you're not performing your duties (or as a scientist, you'll get scooped). Why did it all turn out this way? Why aren't we living in the Star Trek Universe where there's no money and everyone plays in their own holodeck?

Advances in technology allows us to collectively produce more goods (or more research for you scientists), however our security has not increased. So we don't work anymore to buy the TV set, the new pair of jeans, or that x-box, but to maintain services and goods that our parents took for granted. These include healthcare, education, buying a home, retirement. We are told to move from job to job, but this lack of long-term job stability causes more stress. We are the stressed out generation. Technology is what brought us here.

So what to do?

Well just like armed warfare, people can't expect to unilaterally disarm. In other words getting rid of our technology is NOT the solution. Rather we need to re-evaluate how our society operates. Why are we so focused on GDP? Should economists, social scientists figure out what would make us happiest? You may think that the way to go is just drug everyone up. That'll make them all happy. But this idea is false. Long term happiness comes from people who are challenged, BUT CHALENGED IN A POSITIVE LIGHT.

Think of it this way ... there are two types of stressful situations. Ones where the outcomes are beyond a person's control, and others where the outcomes are dependent on an individual's performance. To expand on the second situation, it's a position where if you work hard and make the right choices, you're guaranteed a favorable outcome. According to Richard Layard, from the London School of economics, humans are happiest when placed in the second situation. So perhaps this is what we should strive for. And many individuals in our society are in this position; work hard and you can get into the best schools ... be diligent and you'll get that great job ... choose wise and you can retire and not worry about your health. The irony is that with all our technology and gadgets, fewer and fewer of us live in this ideal happy world.

(For more on this topic check out Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.)


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Ah well .. you have to start with the appropriate premises/approach going in, or you'll just thrash around (I humbly suggest).

You exclaim ... that's preposterous. Technology is good.

There's the fatal flaw up front - trying to class technology as good or bad is not only misleading, it's meaningless. Technologies are tools ... nothing more. You can use them intelligently or you can use them badly (or even stupidly).

I e-mail good or bad? What about voice response? (You know, "Press 1 for blahblah, press 2 for ...").

Answer - "It depends on how they're used."

And if someone is depending on technology to make them happy, I can only pity them.

You also refer to the related "workload management" and "work/life balance" problems. There's a terrible falsehood perpetuated here as well ...

Think of it this way ... there are two types of stressful situations. Ones where the outcomes are beyond a person's control, and others where the outcomes are dependent on an individual's performance.

This is a classic "false dichotomy" or "fallacy of the excluded middle." Few of us can say we're in the position where "...outcomes are dependent on an individual's performance" ... and few have every been. But to flip from that to "...outcomes are beyond a person's control" is just poisonous and self-destructive.

A false dichotomy tends to make us want to look for a "magic bullet" to move from one state to the other. There is no magic bullet. Never has been, never will be.

(Related news flash - life is stressful. Not intending to be sarcastic, but it's easy to miss. I've heard lots of people say that they're trying to "remove stress from my life.")

Too many people are paralyzed by the problem, and ignore the reality that there are always things you can do to improve the situation. Not to "fix it," but to make it just a bit better. They add up over time, and you feel better about things if you're exerting even a tiny bit more control over your life. The other source of paralysis is, "Until they do something, it's hopeless." "They" could be a university administration or a corporate senior management team. Doesn't matter - waiting for "them" to fix things is a guarantee of disappointment.

The irony is that with all our technology and gadgets, fewer and fewer of us live in this ideal happy world.

Very few ever have (if anyone ever has). And if this is your ideal, you'll be unhappy and disappointed until the day you retire (or croak from the stress).

I feel strongly about the subject as a result of being one of two people that did a sizable workload/balance study for the large multinational which employed us, in conjunction with an contracted industrial psychologist. This append is not a bad precis of our findings after interviews and input from a coupe of hundred people.

We presented our results widely, and the "small increments under your control" met with considerable enthusiasm. Interestingly, senior management also recognized they they should be focusing on making small changes which would help their employees, rather than looking for the magic bullet to increase employee satisfaction.

But my major reason for enthusiasm is that I've tried to live this way both while I continued to work for the multinational, and also since I left to go out on my own. (And no, I'm not making my money preaching this lesson, by the way.) The attitude and approach have helped me.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 03 Oct 2007 #permalink