Spring is here. The sun doesn’t set before dinner. And coincidentally, this past weekend was the International Day of Happiness.
What a month for us to learn about happiness.
I mentioned last week that I wanted to spend the final two weeks of March exploring whether technology is having an overall positive or negative impact on our happiness.
But while researching this week, I realized I was basing my conclusions on a huge assumption: That happiness exists on some measurable range.
In simple terms, I assumed that for most of mankind our collective happiness level was a 3. Then the Industrial Age hit and life got better for everyone and we all bumped up to a 7.
(These are just guesses.)
I wanted to know what has happened to our happiness over the last 50 years. Are we up to an 8? Have we slipped down to a 6?
Then the thought occurred to me: Maybe there’s a baseline of happiness for everyone and we spend most of our lives hovering slightly above or below it.
It was just a hypothesis, but I wanted to know whether I was tackling my idea about technology and happiness all wrong.
As it turns out, I was.
Let’s get learning, shall we?
Can we measure happiness?
Is it possible to measure happiness? Is there an index or units of measure we can use?
Yes and no.
It’s entirely possible to use surveying methods to collect statistically-sound data on a population’s subjective well-being.
(If you’re up for some light reading, here’s the 270-page playbook on how to do just that.)
However, there doesn’t exist a universal unit of measurement.
“How are you today?”
“Oh, I’m at 5.5 duckets. What about you?”
“7 duckets, but yesterday I was a 6 so things are looking up.”
It’s strange that something so common and so sought after doesn’t have a universal way of quantifying it other than asking folks: On a scale of 1 to 10 how satisfied are you with your life?
I think Ralph Waldo Emerson probably came closest when he said:
“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”
While we technically can measure happiness, we can’t study the bones of our ancestors and determine their number of duckets.
(I’m rolling with duckets at this point. It was the first random word that popped into my head.)
Which means we can’t compare our happiness today to any other point in time.
But maybe we don’t have to…
Capacity for happiness
Nature instilled in us a clever survival instinct to become desensitized to our environments so as to not become too distracted to notice the stimuli that might eat us.
After experiencing positive or negative stimuli, we return to a relative baseline of “happiness” after awhile.
Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined this process as the Hedonic treadmill.
They even go so far as to argue our capacity for happiness is genetic—however, the “happy gene” has yet to be discovered.
Think about the last time you took a long vacation. It was fun and exciting at first, but each day brought less and less enjoyment.
Eventually, you wanted to be back in your own bed for once.
Our brains evolved to filter out the majority of stimuli that comes its way and focus on anything that might be a threat.
For the majority of human existence, this is how our brains operated. That is until life became easier, more routine.
Suddenly, our brains weren’t concerned about bear attacks but rather passive aggressive texts. (What did she mean by “Ok.”? Why didn’t she add an emoji? Why the period?!)
By eliminating the stimuli that used to kill us, we’ve left our survival hard-wired brains to…chill.
And our brains aren’t coping with this modern world.
Unfortunately, some folks have figured out how to exploit this.
Which brings us back to technology
Now we’re back to the original topic I wanted to cover this week: whether or not technology is making us happier.
“FaceTime & Zoom help close the gaps, but will never top in-person interaction,” Kevin emailed me after last week’s Learning Letter.
I agree. While technology has brought us the unlimited and uninhibited ability to connect with any human in the world—a net positive in my opinion—a certain sect of technology has exploited our lack of life-or-death stimuli: social media.
Social media promises one of the extreme: either sheer joy, excitement, and newness, or anger, frustration, and hate.
Think about it, social media wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it didn’t shake us from the stupor of our happiness baselines.
Which brings me back to contentment, the topic of the book I published last year.
Maybe we’ve taken for granted our happiness baseline, that feeling of neutrality when things aren’t bad but they aren’t all that great either.
Like I said at the beginning of this letter, we spend the majority of our life at this neutral level but constantly seek out means to feel otherwise.
I think it’s time we make peace with life’s status quo.
What do you think?
Until next week,
P.S. – If you’ve had a chance to read my book, Contentment in Chaos over the past few months, can you do me the huge favor of leaving a review on Amazon? I can’t stress enough how important honest reviews are on Amazon. If you have a few moments, I’d really appreciate it!