[Paleopsych] Technology Review: Technology and Happiness

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Technology and Happiness
By James Surowiecki January 2005

    In the 20th century, Americans, Europeans, and
    East Asians enjoyed material and technological advances that were
    unimaginable in previous eras. In the United States, for instance,
    gross domestic product per capita tripled from 1950 to 2000. Life
    expectancy soared. The benefits of capitalism spread more widely among
    the population. The boom in productivity after World War II made goods
    better and cheaper at the same time. Things that were once luxuries,
    such as jet travel and long-distance phone calls, became necessities.
    And even though Americans seemed to work extraordinarily hard (at
    least compared to Europeans), their avid pursuit of entertainment
    turned media and leisure into multibillion-dollar industries.

    By most standards, then, youd have to say that Americans are better
    off now than they were in the middle of the last century. Oddly,
    though, if you ask Americans how happy they are, you find that theyre
    no happier than they were in 1946 (which is when formal surveys of
    happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say theyre
    very happy has fallen slightly since the early 1970seven though the
    income of people born in 1940 has increased, on average, 116 percent
    over the course of their working lives. Nor is this a uniquely
    American phenomenon: you can find similar data for most developed
    countries. Perhaps the most striking example of progress having little
    impact on what economists call peoples sense of subjective well-being
    is Japan. Between 1960 and the late 1980s, Japans economy was utterly
    transformed, as the nation went from a low-cost supplier of cheap
    manufactured goods to what is perhaps the worlds most technologically
    sophisticated society. Over that stretch, the countrys GDP quintupled.
    And yet by the late 1980s, the Japanese said they were no happier than
    they had been in 1960.

    Even more strikingly, life seems worse for a significant minority of
    citizens in the rich world. Since the 1950s, reports of major
    depression have increased tenfold, and while much of that increase
    undoubtedly represents a new willingness to diagnose mental illness,
    theres a general consensus among mental-health experts that it also
    reflects a real development. People are more anxious, trust government
    and business less, and get divorced more often. In the 1960s Tom Wolfe
    confounded those who fretted about the gloominess of American life by
    insisting that Americans were in the midst of a happiness explosion.
    Forty years later, plenty of people would disagree.

    There is, though, one group of Americans that is imperturbably sunny:
    the Amish. Their depression rates are negligibly low relative to the
    rest of societys. Their happiness levels are consistently high. The
    Pennsylvania Amish, when asked how much they agree with the statement
    You are satisfied with your life (using a scale of 1 to 10), turn out
    to be as happy as the members of the Forbes 400. The Amish, though, do
    without most of what we think of as modern technology. They dont rely
    on the automobile, dont need the Internet, and seem to prefer
    stability and permanence to the heady growth that propels innovation
    and the U.S. economy. The comparison is a little facile (the Amish
    have a lot of other characteristics that make people cheerful,
    including strong community ties, stable families, and religious
    faith). But it suggests an interesting question: is it possible that
    technology, instead of liberating us, is holding us back? Is
    technological progress merely a treadmill, and if so, would we be
    happier if we stepped off of it?

    Can we trust people to know what makes them happy?

    The relationship between happiness and technology has been a perennial
    subject for social critics and philosophers since the advent of the
    Industrial [surowiecki20105.jpg] Revolution. But its been left largely
    unexamined by economists and social scientists. The attention that
    they have paid to the subject of happiness has involved the more
    capacious relationship between broad material prosperity and
    well-being. Gregg Easterbrooks book The Progress Paradox grappled with
    this question directly. The economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer
    published an academic survey of the subject in Happiness and Economics
    in 2001. But the truly groundbreaking work on the relationship between
    prosperity and well-being was done by the economist Richard Easterlin,
    who in 1974 wrote a famous paper entitled Does Economic Growth Improve
    the Human Lot? Easterlin showed that when it came to developed
    countries, there was no real correlation between a nations income
    level and its citizens happiness. Money, Easterlin argued, could not
    buy happinessat least not after a certain point. Easterlin showed that
    though poverty was strongly correlated with misery, once a country was
    solidly middle-class, getting wealthier didnt seem to make its
    citizens any happier.

    Easterlins work did not get much attention when it was first
    published, but its implications were profound. By suggesting that
    there was no direct link between wealth and well-being, Easterlin was
    challenging some basic assumptions of mainstream economics. Most
    economists begin with the idea that people act in their own
    self-interest most of the time, and that they usually understand that
    self-interest pretty well. The choices people make, therefore, must be
    better than the alternatives (or else people would make other
    choices). By this argument, wealth is a good thing because it
    increases peoples options and gives them more freedom to pursue
    whatever it is they want to pursue. For classical economists, it was
    almost tautological to say that the wealthier people are, the happier
    they are, too.

    Easterlins relatively simple study suggested that if what people said
    about themselves was to be believed, you could give people more
    choices and more wealth and not have much of an impact on their sense
    of well-being. Well-being is actually the central idea of economics,
    says Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University. But weve
    never really tried to measure it. Weve used proxies, and weve said, If
    were richer, and we have more options, we must be better off. But we
    havent tried to find out if thats really true.

    One response to this, of course, is to say that you cant really trust
    what people say about themselves in surveys, no matter how well
    executed. Pay attention to what people do, and youll get a real sense
    of what they want. On this view, worrying about whether people say
    they are happy with the choices they make is nonsense. Of course they
    are. If people spend a lot of money and time buying and using personal
    computers and wireless phones and personal digital assistants, then
    these gadgets must make them happy.

    There is an inherent logic to this argument, and it has the great
    virtue of not asking economists to decipher peoples motives. But in
    the last decade or more, deciphering peoples motives (or at least
    their behavior) is something more economists have become interested in
    doing, and to great effect. Behavioral economists have moved away from
    assumptions about individuals perfect rationality in order to develop
    what they think of as a more realistic model of economic behavior.
    Theyve explored the idea, hardly radical outside economics but pretty
    radical inside it, that people might sometimes make mistakes, and that
    their decisions (whether individual or collective) could actually make
    them unhappy. For instance, behavioral economists have shown that
    peoples preferences are what is sometimes called time-inconsistent. We
    would like to save in the long term, but in the short term wed rather
    spend. Just as strikingly, behavioral economists have shown that human
    beings arent very good at anticipating their own desires. Daniel
    Kahneman of Princeton University, who won the Nobel Prize in economics
    in 2002, demonstrated that students, when asked to eat a bowl of their
    favorite ice cream eight days in a row, had a poor sense of whether
    they would or would not enjoy the experience.

    Considering how many decisions about new technologies are based on
    little or no concrete evidence and involve guessing about the future,
    it seems plausible that people can get stuck with technologies that
    dont make them happy but that are hard to get rid of. Plausible, but
    not certain: as well see, when it comes to the vexed relationship
    between technology and happiness, certainty is not an easy thing to
    come by.

    The question of technology: net loss or net gain?

    In trying to decipher how technology affects well-being, then, its
    worth paying attention to a few things. First, there have been few
    rigorous studies of the specific relationship between technological
    change and how people feel about their own lives. So the question Does
    more (or better) technology make people happy? is irreducibly
    speculative. Second, there is something inherently unstable about
    peoples accounts of their own states of mind. Forget peoples
    uncertainty about what will make them happy in the future; can we even
    trust that people know what makes them happy now?

    Most seriously, thinking about technology is hard because people adapt
    so quickly to the technologies that are available to them. If you had
    asked someone in 1870 whether she would be happier if she had a
    personal vehicle that would give her the freedom to travel hundreds of
    miles a day, in whatever direction she chose, at relatively little
    cost; the opportunity to fly across the ocean in a few hours; and the
    ability to speak to people who were thousands of miles away in real
    time for a few cents a minute, chances are very good that she would
    have said, yes, it would make her a lot happier. But today, its the
    rare person who gets excited about cars, planes, and telephones. We
    recognize their utility, but theyre also sources of frustration and
    stress. On balance, most people would say theyd rather have cars and
    telephones than not, butand this is what makes thinking about
    happiness so hardits not clear they really make us happier.

    This seems to be close to a universal phenomenon. In fact, one of
    happiness scholars most important insights is that people adapt very
    quickly to good news. Take lottery winners. One famous study showed
    that although winners were very, very happy when they won, their
    euphoria quickly evaporated, and after a while their moods and sense
    of well-being were indistinguishable from what they had been before
    the victory. Psychologists even have a word for the phenomenon:
    hedonic adaptation.

    So, too, with technology: no matter how dramatic a new innovation is,
    no matter how much easier it makes our lives, it is very easy to take
    it for granted. You can see this principle at work in the world of
    technology every day, as things that once seemed miraculous soon
    become mundane and, worse, frustrating when they dont work perfectly.
    Its hard, it turns out, to keep in mind what things were like before
    the new technology came along. Thats why broadband users should
    occasionally use dial-up: it makes them appreciate just what a
    difference a high-speed connection really does make.

    Does our fast absorption of technological progress mean, then, that
    technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of
    technologys impact, for good and ill, more complicated. Lets start
    with the downside. There are certain ways in which technology makes
    life obviously worse. Telemarketing, traffic jams, and identity theft
    all come to mind. These are all phenomena that make people consciously
    unhappy. But for the most part, modern critiques of technology have
    focused not so much on specific, bad technologies as on what Heidegger
    called the question of technologythat is, the impact of technology on
    our humanity.

    Those critiques have staked out two apparently opposed positions,
    which nonetheless share a common skepticism about peoples ability to
    use technology to their own ends. The first position, which one can
    see in the work of the French critic Jacques Ellul or, more oddly, in
    the novels of Philip K. Dick, is that technological progress is
    leading to an ever more rigid, controlled, soulless society, in which
    its easier for people to be manipulated and monitored. The second
    position, which has been well articulated in books like Neil Postmans
    Amusing Ourselves to Death and Robert Putnams Bowling Alone, is that
    technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience,
    which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which
    traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is
    increasingly an illusion, and peoples relationships to each other,
    mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.

    Theres obviously something to both arguments. Privacy has become
    increasingly fragile in a world of linked databases. In many
    workplaces, technologies like keystroke monitoring and full recordings
    of phone calls make it easier to watch workers. The notion that
    technology disrupts relationships and fractures community gained
    mainstream prominence as an attack on television, but in recent years
    it has also become central to the critique of the Internet. In Bowling
    Alone, Putnam suggests that TV is a chief culprit in the gradual
    isolation of Americans from each other and the erosion of the social
    capital that makes societies run smoothly. Similarly, the deleterious
    effects of the Internet, which supposedly further isolates people from
    what critics always call the real world, were pointed to early on in a
    famous study of 169 Pittsburgh residents, Internet Paradox: A Social
    Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological
    Well-Being? According to the study, published in the September 1998
    issue of American Psychologist, instead of allowing them to connect
    with a much wider set of potential friends and exposing them to
    information they might otherwise never have come across, the Internet
    instead made people more depressed and lonely than they would
    otherwise have been.

    This broad criticism of technologys impact on relationships is an
    interesting one and is especially relevant to the question of
    happiness, because one of the few things we can say for certain is
    that the more friends and close relationships people have, the happier
    they tend to be. But the evidence that the Internet or even television
    fundamentally erodes relationships as opposed to changing them is not
    especially convincing. For instance, when the authors of that 1998
    study revisited the question a few years later, using a slightly
    different methodology, they arrived at the opposite conclusion,
    finding that the Net had a slightly beneficial impact on peoples
    sociability, connections with others, and sense of well-being.

    Obviously, a technology as wide-ranging and ubiquitous as the Net will
    have myriad, immeasurable effects. But the Internet is essentially a
    communications technology, one that, like the telephone, allows people
    to expand their affective and informational networks. The Net is
    hardly the ideal public sphere, where all discussions are rational and
    everyone agrees on a definition of the common good. But it is a public
    sphere, and one that crucially functions without gatekeepers.

    The dominant critiques of technology have, then, something exaggerated
    about them. But one way in which technology, as a rule, does make
    people less happy is in its relentless generation of newness. One of
    the key insights of happiness studies is that people have a very hard
    time being content with what they have, at least when they know that
    others have more. Today, technological change is so rapid that when
    you buy something, you do so knowing that in a few months theres going
    to be a better, faster version of the product, and that youre going to
    be stuck with the old one. Someone else, in other words, has it
    better. Its as if disappointment were built into acquisition from the
    very beginning (unless youre buying a 70-inch plasma screen, in which
    case you should be fine for at least a couple of years). Theres no way
    to circumvent this drooping of the spirit, which creates
    dissatisfaction in the heart of the modern consumer.

    Technology à la carte: bad food, but bigger portions
    Daily stress, a nagging sense of disappointment, fear that the
    government knows a lot more about you than you would like it to: if
    these are some of the ways in which technology reduces peoples sense
    of well-being, how (if at all) does it increase their happiness? This
    is terrain that is ordinarily left to the cyberoptimists and trans-
    humanists, who believe that technology should be celebrated for the
    way it remakes and improves our bodies and  minds. But setting flights
    of fancy aside, there is some intriguingly suggestive work about how
    certain new technologies make people not just objectively better off
    but also happier.

    In the marketplace, for instance, the Internet has made consumers
    happier not so much by cutting prices as by expanding the enormous
    array of choices available to them in a manageable way. In the
    happiness stakes, expanding consumers options is really a double-edged
    sword: consumers do have a preference for variety and novelty, and the
    more choices you have, the better the chance that youll find the thing
    you really want. But too much choice can actually paralyze people,
    leaving them, paradoxically, worse off.

    A well-known experiment conducted by Professors Mark Lepper and Sheena
    Iyengar (at Stanford and Columbia, respectively) illustrates the
    point: they set up two tables in a supermarket, one with 24 jars of
    jam and the other with six, and offered discount coupons to anyone who
    stopped to sample the jams. Of the people who stopped at the 24-jam
    table, only 3 percent went on to buy jam, while 30 percent of the
    people who stopped at the six-jam table did. More choices often make
    people frustrated because they have no reasonable way to navigate
    through them. What the Internet offers, at least in a nascent form, is
    a host of mechanismscollaborative filtering, shopbots, consumer-rating
    sitesthat give people the tools to make informed choices relatively
    quickly and easily, reducing paralysis and making them happier. The
    important point here is that among the infinite choices that the
    Internet offers, one is the option of less choice.

    Technology has also radically changed the nature of work, or at least
    some peoples work. This matters because the workplace is central to
    peoples sense of well-being and is more important to them than
    anything, including family. Studies show that nothingnot even
    divorcemakes people more unhappy than unemployment. For much of the
    19th and 20th centuries, technologys impact on the workplace was
    ambiguous at best. While the mechanization of agriculture allowed
    people to escape the farm, it often propelled them straight into heavy
    industrial labor, which was well paying but often miserable.
    Technology increased the productivity of workers, but it also
    diminished their autonomy: superiors controlled more of the details of
    their working days. Even the office work of the postwar period
    exemplified by the endless rows of desks in Billy Wilders The
    Apartment was deeply bureaucratic and controlled. But recently, the
    rise of the networked society, and the advent of knowledge-based
    businesses, means that workplaces have become less formal and more
    open, even while remaining efficient and productive. Already, as Arlie
    Hochschild points out in The Time Bind, a significant percentage of
    Americans find the atmosphere at work more congenial than the one at
    home. As the number of knowledge workers grows, and as companies
    strive to keep them happy, well-being should increase.

    The most important impact of technology on peoples sense of
    well-being, though, is in the field of health care. Before the
    Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before
    the age of 30. Today, life expectancy for women in Western Europe is
    almost 80 years, and it continues to increase. The point is obvious,
    but important to note: the vast majority of people are happy to be
    alive, and the more time they get on earth, the better off they feel
    theyll be. (Remember, the point about prosperity and happiness is not
    that prosperity makes people unhappy; its that it doesnt necessarily
    make them happier.) Now, the picture is a little more complicated than
    this. Living a few extra years as a geriatric may not be ideal. But
    until very recently, life for the vast majority of people was (in
    Hobbess formulation) nasty, brutish, and short. Technology has changed
    that, at least for people in the rich world. As much as we should
    worry about the rising cost of health care and the problem of the
    uninsured, its also worth remembering how valuable for our spirits as
    well as our bodies are the benefits that medical technology and
    pharmaceuticals have brought us.

    On a deeper level, what the technological improvement of our health
    and our longevity underscores is a paradox of any discussion of
    happiness on a national or a global level: even though people may not
    be happier, even though they are wealthier and possess more
    technology, theyre still as hungry as ever for more time. Its like
    that old Woody Allen joke: the food may not be so great, but we want
    the portions to be as big as possible.

    Technology may only improve the taste of the meals slightly, but it
    makes them a lot bigger, and for most of us, that has the promise of
    something like happiness.


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