• Dr. Timothy Smith

Are Computers Making Us Happier?

Smartphones at a Concert

Photo Source: media.defense.gov

Every year since 2012 in the month of March, the latest “World Happiness Report” gets presented at the United Nations detailing the ranking of 155 countries from the happiest to the most miserable. (worldhappiness.report) The report uses data gathered from each country to determine the happiest countries, and the top ten features some perennial favorites such as Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. The most recent report in 2017 saw the United States slip one notch to the 14th happiest country overall. The ranking derives from several categories of data from “GDP per Capita,” which divides a country's productivity by the number of its citizens. A more productive country makes for a happier country. A quick glance at the list of happiest countries shows a strong connection between high GDP per capita and overall happiness, and the countries with very low GDP per capita, including countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania, rank as some of the unhappiest countries of all. Other categories of happiness in the report include “Healthy Life Expectancy,” “Freedom to Make Life Choices,” “Generosity,” and “Trust.” For instance, "Trust" measures the amount of corruption in each country with the assumption that higher corruption leads to greater misery. Although not explicitly measured in the report, all of the top countries also have advanced technology and widely distributed access to technology. Interestingly, top countries in the Happiness Report also appear at the top of Newzoo's 2017 Global Mobile Market Report that ranks the countries with the greatest percentage smartphone users. Moreover, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and the United States also lead in percentage of homes with a personal computer. (worldatlas.com)

Given that the world's happiest countries are also the leaders of the adoption of cell phones and personal computers, it would be tempting to conclude that computers make us happier. However, a number of studies show that computers and their connection to the internet also bring their own kinds of unhappiness. For example, the research conducted by Kelly M. Lister-Landman, Ph.D. on high school students show that those who compulsively text achieve lower grades than those that do not. (American Psychological Association) In the landmark study from the Human Computer Interaction Institute in Carnegie Mellon University titled: Internet paradox. A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? the authors demonstrated that ”Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.” (The American Psychologist) More research continues to accumulate on the effects of social networking on personal wellbeing. Recently, investigators in the Stanford History Education Group showed that students that demonstrate fluency in social media appear to lack the ability to determine the credibility of the information they come across and even lack the ability to distinguish news from advertisements. (ed.stanford.edu) In another vein, not all the studies on computers and society have a negative reflection. One study showed that judicial use of smartphones for regular short breaks at work correlated with higher employee satisfaction and productivity. (ScienceDaily.com). In a report from CBS News by Amanda Schupak, “Sixty-seven percent of Internet users say that email, texting, and social networking has strengthened their relationships with family and friends.”

The happiest countries in the world according to the “World Happiness Report” include many economically and technologically advanced nations such a Norway, Denmark and The United States. Correspondingly, these nations also have the highest adoption rate of computers and cell phones compared to countries at the lower end of the happiness report. Computers have enhanced people’s lives, but research continues to return mixed results in regard to whether or not technology actually makes people happier. In a way, the rapid adoption of new technology challenges people to adapt and in some cases discard some technologies when they do not make people happier. In an interesting trend, a number of musical artists such as Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, and Alecia Keys now demand smartphone free concerts that ban the attendees from using their phones during the show. Banning phones prevents the common practice now of many fans standing with their phones throughout the show staring into their little screens to record the show, blocking the view of others and placing technology between the artists and the crowd. Computers and smartphones have changed our lives, but more careful research must be conducted to determine whether it makes us happier.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

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