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.