Can Technology Make You Happier?

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

We were texting. All of us. Compulsively. It was two hours before one of the world’s most famous archaeology scholars, Jodi Magness, would be speaking about the Dead Sea Scrolls—some of the earliest known manuscripts from the Hebrew Bible, dating as far back as 250 B.C. The scrolls were handwritten on dried animal skins with carbon soot from olive-oil lamps.

But we—a few UNLV students and some Black Mountain Institute enthusiasts like me—were at the Greenpsun Auditorium for a different lecture: “Does Access to Information Technology Make People Happier?”

I tripped over the threshold as I texted my way to my seat. The speaker, Carol Graham, is a renowned economist who studies happiness through well-being studies worldwide. She’s had many prestigious roles, including as an adviser to the Gallup World Poll, which has measured people’s happiness annually since 2005.

Graham took to the stage fully mic’d up, with two computer screens in front of her and one giant screen facing the audience. The university had TV cameras working the event, recording it for broadcast online.

I couldn’t wait to find out if we were happier because of technology, and I felt compelled to fill the anticipatory minutes with a quick search of 530 of my friends’ personal lives on Facebook. One of them reported that she’d had a morning bout with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, so I counted her as not-so-happy. But several others were hoisting drinks in the non-phone hand and/or reviewing their own cooking, which I decided to push into the happy narcissist category, which is a step above plain happy and nearly as happy as the completely oblivious to reality category.

Graham’s work was far more serious, in part because it’s not limited to the digestive tracts of virtual friends. Her studies have measured two types of happiness worldwide, using both Aristotelian and Hedonic variables. That is, everyone is asked to self-report in two different ways. The first seeks a reasoned evaluation: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your life? And the second asks people to self-report: Did you smile a lot yesterday? Were you stressed yesterday? Were you angry yesterday?

It turns out, Graham said, “People smile plenty in poor places, too.”

But people in developing countries saw their smile level increase when they acquired cellphones—but not because they were suddenly able to text the person next to them. Instead, it was about access and autonomy. For example, they finally had access to banking, which in places with little structure and no landlines has been problematic. Kenyans, for example, saw their happiness levels go up in both evaluative and smile-level reports with the onslaught of cellphones, which connected them to financial institutions.

However, as you might have suspected or read online or experienced in your gut, there’s a level of diminishing returns with access to information technology. As people evaluated their life to be better, they also reported higher stress levels—with information comes complexity and frustration. And although people in wealthier nations with high access to information technology were generally happier, at some point, their stress and anger levels began to rise disproportionately to their smile levels.

Moreover, as people worldwide began to see what life is like for other people, frustration rose. Chileans got a better sense of disparity between rich and poor by comparing their situation to other nations online; Americans learned how to feel inferior to their seemingly happier Facebook friends.

After Graham’s lecture, I walked back centuries to the archaeology lecture in the Student Union. It was not being rebroadcast online. Cellphones weren’t welcome.

And here’s the major lesson I took from the 1946 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Bedouin shepherd who found them in a cave in Qumran sold them for less than $35.

Then, in 1954, they were sold through an ad in The Wall Street Journal to an Israeli archaeologist for $250,000—or about $2 million in today’s value. Of course, they’re considered priceless now.

Had the Bedouin had Internet access, he’d have known better. Information is power.