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Student on their phone
November 12, 2020
4 mins read

How technology can (and can't) make us happier

Our phones and computers help us navigate the world. They can connect us to our friends, family, peers, and coworkers…and give us constant updates on celebrity divorces.

As we practice physical distancing, we’re using technology more than ever before. Though having constant access to the Internet allows us to keep in touch with everyone in our lives, that also makes it incredibly easy to be distracted by the most minute of topics.

Regardless, technology is such an integral part of our lives that the question of whether it makes us happier or not almost feels irrelevant.

But according to happiness expert and UBC Psychology prof Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, the way we use technology can significantly impact our happiness. I interviewed Dr. Dunn before the COVID-19 outbreak, and her research was conducted under normal circumstances, prior to physical distancing. However, I think a lot of her findings can be applied to how we’re using technology now.

Defining happiness

Before I jump into Dr. Dunn’s findings, make sure you check out this blog post for a more detailed overview on what happiness is. In short, Dr. Dunn defines happiness as a combination of a few different factors: how often you feel joy; how infrequently you feel anger, grief, and frustration; and how satisfied in general you are with your life. 

Nobody feels happy 100% of the time, and that’s okay! Dr. Dunn’s advice can help us lead more satisfying lives and minimize the amount of anger and frustration we feel. And one significant way we can help ourselves live more satisfying lives is by rethinking our relationship with technology.

Technology’s benefits…

“To be clear, phone use does not make people miserable,” Dr. Dunn tells me. She explains that technology can be extremely useful in many scenarios, like when we’re late, lost, and need to quickly check Google Maps to determine the fastest way to our destination. 

Technology is also obviously allowing us all to study, work, and socialize from home right now. I frequently think about how much more difficult the COVID outbreak would be if we didn’t live in such a technologically advanced world. Working and studying remotely would’ve been even harder 10 years ago—Zoom was only founded in 2011! In the big scheme of things, that’s really not that long ago.

…and drawbacks

However helpful technology has been in allowing us to navigate a physically distanced world, it does have some downsides, particularly involving how we connect with people. 

“Technology does not erase the benefits of spending time with others,” Dr. Dunn explains, “but it can chip away at them.” 

Student looking at their phones
Student looking at their phone

Dr. Dunn brings up the example of a class lecture (pre-online learning), noting that she sees students interacting less frequently than they used to before and after class, and spending time on their phones instead. 

This behaviour isn’t always a bad thing—sometimes you just need some personal time! But Dr. Dunn highlights the importance of positive social experiences on one’s happiness:

“When people are engaged in social interactions, having their phones out and available actually undercuts the enjoyment they would normally take from that social experience.”

Get connected by getting off your phone

To test the effects of smartphones on happiness, Dr. Dunn studied people navigating UBC’s campus. Her team asked participants to find their way to a building that was unfamiliar to them, either with or without their phone to guide them. Unsurprisingly, people generally found it easier to get around with the help of their phone.

People who didn’t have their phones on them often had to rely on asking other folks for directions, and ended up talking to two or three more people on their way than they normally would have. Though these extra conversations may seem like minor interactions, Dr. Dunn found out that they actually increased the participants' sense of social connection around UBC, which in turn increased their happiness.

Both groups reported being in a better mood once they found the building and completed the task, but the group that had to ask people for help had the added benefit of feeling more socially connected. Dr. Dunn does stress that you should absolutely use your phone to get somewhere if you’re in a rush. However, if you’re not, she recommends finding opportunities in your life to have those small interactions that can help connect you to your community—where and when it’s safe to do so, of course. 

So ask for directions, say hi to your neighbours, help that student chase after their papers on a windy day—whatever you feel comfortable with!

Using technology in the time of COVID

Obviously, there are some challenges to acting on Dr. Dunn’s recommendations when we often have to use technology to communicate in the first place. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small changes we can make! Dr. Dunn emphasized the importance of social connection on our happiness, so consider how you’re engaging with your friends and loved ones online or in person.

Here are some tips that can help:

1. If you’re video calling a friend, limit your distractions by turning off your other devices  
Doing so can help you get the most enjoyment possible out of the call!

2. If you’re hanging out with people in your bubble, keep your phone tucked away
As Dr. Dunn advises, “That kind of behaviour can catch on, so if you do it right, other people may follow suit.” Just be sure you’re following current COVID-19 guidelines in your area, if you meet people in person!

3. Try setting up a group on social media for your courses if you haven’t done so already
Go ahead and chat with your classmates before and after class (it doesn’t have to be about the course material!). 

4. Connect to the people in your community! 
Take a break from online life and go for a walk. If you feel safe doing so, say hi to your neighbours (from a distance) or have a short chat with your cashier at the grocery store. These small interactions can help you feel more connected to your community during this time of physical distancing.

Students talking

So, use technology responsibly to really focus on the people in your life—whether that’s your best friend, your classmates, or the people in your community. Sometimes all it takes is a quick “hello” to brighten up your day!

Header photo credit: Darren Hull / UBC Brand & Marketing