Can We Find Happiness in This Digital Era?

Next time you attend a meeting, notice how people interact with their mobile phones. Is it appropriate for them to work emails if the meeting is boring? Are those who keep their phones out of eyesight more conscientious about how it influences conversations?

What impact does either of these actions have on the meeting’s effectiveness? There is growing interest in better understanding the effects of technology on our social skills. This includes understanding how the digital era affects our mental and physical well-being, including happiness.

Amy Blankson, author, consultant, and co-founder of GoodThink begins her new book, The Future of Happiness, with a bold statement, “Technology is the biggest disrupter of happiness in human history.” In her book, Blankson argues that when we learn to leverage technology, like smartphones, in ways that grow our potential, we positively influence our level of happiness.

Achieving a desirable level of happiness requires discipline when technology is involved. 2016 research found that the average person touches his or her phone 2,617 times a dayfor an average total of over 2-hours. While data regarding phone usage varies, the trend is certainly on a significant upward trajectory. The truth is, we can’t keep our hands off our phones. Certainly, the convenience of helpful apps and timely communication makes it nearly impossible to forget about them. One thing is clear, however: We need to learn to effectively alternate between both tech-driven interactions and meaningful human interactions.

Technology and Happiness

Imagine you’re a member of a six-person team. You work remotely from home, but your colleagues all work from the same office. On the days you have team meetings, you join via video conferencing. Though this type of interaction is common today, it raises some questions about the quality of those interactions. For example, do virtual interactions contribute to a sense of team cohesion? Do those who are in the same room feel closer to each other than they do with you? And what about your own sense of belonging? If we don’t have quality relationships with our co-workers, does this influence our level of happiness?

Researcher Randall Collins, a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, has researched social networks and what influences the strength of connections between people. Collins’s theory, Interaction Ritual Chains, posits that team members, through rituals, body language, and social cues, develop stronger bonds when they physically interact with one another. Our own biology helps to explain why this happens. Positive, in-person interactions trigger the brain to release oxytocin, sometimes called the “love drug.” It’s oxytocin that contributes to the strength of a bond between people. Collins concluded that bodily presence is ideal for feelings of solidarity and emotional energy. The presence of these two has a positive, lasting influence on happiness.

Weak relationships, whether at work or not, can lead to loneliness. Even America’s youth are showing signs of unhappiness stemming from the extended use of smartphones and/or tablets. A 2012 Stanford University study suggests that young girls who spend much of their time connecting with friends online are less happy than those who socialize in person.

Researchers are still learning about the connections between technology and happiness. However, it doesn’t take scientific research to realize that there is some cause and effect. Consider your own frustration when you spend extended amounts of time going through emails or reading your Facebook instead of working on an important assignment. Your frustration is the consequence of feeling like you wasted time and did not complete something important. Happiness can hardly captivate us when frustration or disappointment are recurring feelings.

Uncovering Lasting Happiness through Technology

Technology’s ubiquity will not subside. If we are to find happiness in this digital era, we need to learn new behaviors.

Blankson’s book offers an impressive catalog of behavior-changing solutions. When we talked, she shared some of these suggestions:

1. Turn off your phone after work for a few hours

2. Put your phone out of site

3. Turn off your television

4. Manage notifications on your phone

Additionally, Blankson includes a comprehensive list of apps or websites in her book that can assist in integrating technology more productively into your day. Some of my favorites include RealizdUnpluggedCampfire, and FocusList.

Technology is a significant part of our lives. If we allow it to keep us from having meaningful relationships or crossing important assignments off our to-do lists, happiness will be elusive. We can, however, find happiness in this digital era. Technology aids our efforts to plan and accomplish goals. There are tools that allow us to build high-quality relationships with people from around the world. And there are apps and sites that help us learn about ourselves. These tech solutions can help us successfully find happiness.

The disruptive nature of technology doesn’t automatically lead to unhappiness. You can view the disruption as a trigger for finding new insights and opportunities. It comes down to a choice–will you choose to adapt your behaviors or be undermined by technology. In the end, we each choose how to find and experience our own version of happiness.

That is one truth that has never changed.

This post originally published in Inc.

Timing, Not Time, Is Money

I once had a conversation with the set drummer of the Boston Pops Orchestra. I will indulge in some grandiosity to make a point: The Boston Pops Orchestra was, at the time, the most famous and successful orchestra in the world. They had sold million of records, due in no small part to their “pop” music recordings, and this guy . . . this one guy . . . was the rhythmic heart and soul of that massive success.

We were on a bus going to a concert out of town, and it just so happened that the only seat left on the bus was the one next to this guy, so there I sat. To break the awkward silence (I was the new kid at the time), I started telling him about a new spartan practice regime I had instituted. I talked about how I was pushing myself to the highest level of metronomic and rhythmic precision I could.

I worked with this guy for 20 years and this was the only conversation I ever had with him, but it was a doozy. He looked at me with ill-masked condescension and said, “Control is essential, but precision alone has no value. The whole idea is play a little ahead of the beat or a little behind it. That’s what gives the music its ‘color’ and its emotional impact.”

When I talk about the culture-shock experience of playing in major orchestra, this is a perfect example. Here, in just three sentences, this guy basically refuted, with flawless logic, everything I had learned about time and timing in industrial school culture: the constant blind emphasis on always being right on time, never be late or behind, and always obeying the timing of a machine called a clock.

The way we traditionally think about time and work is obsolete. When you get away from doing purely physical labor, time ceases to work the same way. It’s like Newtonian physics no longer working with subatomic particles at the speed of light. One example, in a recent report on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft explained how high-frequency traders do something called “front-running.” Simply stated, by accessing slightly shorter fiber optic cables that let them see stock market orders three milliseconds ahead of everyone else, they can see your order before it hits “the market” and buy the stock you have ordered a millisecond ahead of you. That way, they can then sell that stock back to you for a penny more than the price you thought it was going to be.

A penny doesn’t sound like much, but if you do that hundreds of millions of times an hour, it adds up. To tens of billions of dollars. It’s normally illegal, but not in this context. In this case, it was a millisecond of timing, not large amounts of time, that was money.

We have all heard the phrase “time is money.” Many of you have heard the phrase “money is emotion.” But here is one you may not have heard: time . . . is emotion. All the emotions expressed by music are expressed and evoked by subtle manipulations of time. Everything you do has a different emotional impact depending on how fast or slow you do it. If a customer feels rushed or bored or disrespected, that is almost always a timing issue. Taking too much time to help a customer is just as bad as taking too little.

The trouble is, the shame and fear of modern life messes with your emotions, and thus with your sense of time and timing, in a major way. I have met people — brilliant people — who have lost all connection to their inner sense of time. They can’t find the “one” in a four-beat bar. Have you ever watched such people try to dance? Sad. We live in an emotionally “numbed up” society, and that means our sense of timing is all numbed up too.

Industrial time management is very crude, and is based on people working like machines. It is all about “duration” equaling value. This is no longer the case. If a child learns x amount in six hours of school, that does not mean they will learn twice as much in 12 hours, but many people who think in terms of industrial machine-based time think this is the case.

Interestingly enough, the stock market “front-runners” were defeated by slowing down the flow of information, not trying to go faster. This sounds crazy to industrial time thinkers, but to a musician, or anyone who has achieved calm mastery, it makes perfect sense. Going slower gives you more control, and sometimes slower or slightly behind is just better period.

Time is not a god to worship, and it’s not something that sits on a pallet in the loading dock. It is, in essence, a medium of artistic expression, for good or for ill; as we escape from factory life, we are all on the verge of a renaissance in the workplace, going back to where we will all be less like cogs and more like unique craftspeople and artisans. We will have far more artistic/emotional expression in our daily and working lives, not constantly suppressing it to achieve greater speed, as that will be the only value we will have to offer after the robots and computers take over all the repetitive tasks.

After a century of our workplaces being ruled by a machine called a clock, the digital era has made time-duration-based measurement of work meaningless. The post-industrial world is still struggling to comprehend this, as these old industrial era traditions — of seeing emotions as a drag on efficiency, rather than both the basis of money (trust) and core of the economy (unmet desire) — dog us endlessly. Rethinking — or perhaps we should say re-feeling — how we look at time is key to making this transition. Time is not a constant. It flies by or drags on forever depending how we feel at the moment. Timing, not time, is money.

Justin Locke is a freelance writer, playwright, coach, consultant, and speaker. He is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, a pragmatic guide on how smart people can take advantage of the Dilbert Principle, and Real Men Don’t Rehearse, a laugh-out-loud memoir of playing bass in the Boston Pops. In his books, workshops, and presentations he shares an amusing artistic perspective on the challenges of management, and just coping with life in general. Visit his website at

photo credit: j.sutt via photopin cc