That new phone or laptop may be giving you a warm glow, but beware
a stealth attack on your happiness, warns Yair Amichai-Hamburger
by Yair Amichai-Hamburger
THE age of melancholy is how psychologist Daniel Goleman describes
our era. People today experience more depression than previous
generations, despite the technological wonders that help us every day.
It might be because of them.
Our lifestyles are increasingly driven by technology. Phones,
computers and the internet pervade our days. There is a constant,
nagging need to check for texts and email, to update Facebook, MySpace
and LinkedIn profiles, to acquire the latest notebook or 3G cellphone.
Are we being served by these technological wonders or have we become
enslaved by them? I study the psychology of technology, and it seems
to me that we are sleepwalking into a world where technology is
severely affecting our well-being. Technology can be hugely useful in
the fast lane of modern living, but we need to stop it from taking
For many of us it is becoming increasingly difficult to control the
impulse to check our inbox yet again or see whether the headlines have
changed since we last looked. Our children are in a similar position,
scared to miss a vital Tweet or status update on Facebook. In many
homes, the computer has become the centre of attention; it is the
medium through which we work and play.
How did this arise, and what is it doing to us? In this era of mass
consumption, we are surrounded by advertising that urges us to find
fulfilment through the acquisition of material goods. As a result,
adults and children increasingly believe that in order to belong and
feel good about themselves, they must own the latest model or gadget.
Yet research by psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College in
Galesburg, Illinois, has shown that people who place a high value on
material goals are unhappier than those who are less materialistic.
Materialism is also associated with lower self-esteem, greater
narcissism, greater tendency to compare oneself unfavourably with
other people, less empathy and more conflict in relationships.
People who place a high value on material goals are unhappier than
those who are less materialistic
Our culture also constantly reminds us that time is money. This
implies a need for total efficiency, which is why we are allowing
laptop computers and mobile phones to blur the separation between work
and home. As one unhappy human-resource manager in a high-tech company
put it: They gave me a mobile phone so they can own me 24 hours a
day, and a portable computer, so my office is now with me all the time
- I cannot break out of this pressure. Sound familiar?
Psychologists generally believe that the lack of a clear separation
between work and home significantly damages our relationships with
loved ones. It also predisposes us to focus on the here and now at the
expense of long-term goals.
By imposing these twin pressures, modern society is in danger of
swapping standard of living for quality of life. We need ways to help
recover those increasingly large parts of our lives that we have ceded
to technology, to regain mastery over technology and learn to use it
in a healthy and positive way.
My prescription is self-determination theory, developed by
psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of
Rochester in New York state. It identifies three vital elements of
healthy personal development and functioning which I think can be used
to recalibrate our relationship with technology.
The first is autonomy - the feeling that our activities are
self-chosen and self-endorsed. When we feel in control, we are able to
organise our priorities and place effective boundaries around them.
But when we feel we have insufficient control, it leaves us vulnerable
to our impulses and causes us to abdicate decisions to other people.
It is easy to see how technology undermines autonomy, but also how to
regain it. This may be as simple as switching off mobile phones during
meals and family time, setting aside specific times to answer emails,
and being available only when we choose to be.
We also need a sense of competence, a belief that our actions are
effective. In this respect our relationship with technology is
complex, because many of us feel competent when we deal with an email,
when we have the newest BlackBerry, or because 50 people enjoyed the
holiday snaps we posted on Facebook. But being truly competent must be
a continuation of our autonomy: knowing which activities are important
to us and carrying them out in the most effectual way possible, making
use of technology where applicable.
The other factor is relatedness: our need to feel close to other
people. Technology is a threat to this. Devices like the iPod can be
used to create a bubble that disconnects us from normal human
interactions, and while some virtual relationships may be truly
meaningful, in many cases they come at the expense of