Why Are Americans Getting Gloomier?
Does living online contribute to the national malaise?
Posted March 21, 2019
The World Happiness Report, an initiative of the United Nations that was just released, showed Americans are spiraling toward gloom with our worst showing since the report was first released in 2012. Today Americans rank 19, wedged somewhere below Finland and above Afghanistan.
But why? Theories abound. A penchant toward high-risk behaviors. Drug addiction. Gambling. Physical connection void of intimacy. But the culprit most love to hate is social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, gaming, texting, emailing, What’s App, YouTube, Vimeo, Snapchat and everything that involves two eyes gazing at a screen.
But are we right to denounce a medium that has in so many ways increased our overall connectivity? Today, we talk instantly via text to someone on the other side of the world. We bring joy by sending photos of children to doting grandparents without needing an envelope and stamp. We find love by swiping. We check in with high school friends who would otherwise be out of sight until the next reunion. We widely share with others ideas, articles and recipes that have captured our fascination.
Connection today is faster, better and cheaper than ever before in our nation's history. But how has this technology that created such a vibrant social fabric affected us? Has it made us happier?
The fact is this: To be happy and, even more importantly, to thrive, means to feel a connection with your life in a meaningful way that leads to physical, social, and spiritual rewards. To flourish is to grow without boundaries, to be unstoppable in your power, to soar to the heights that resonate deep within you.
In great part, choosing happiness equates to the decision to forge strong connections with other people. As the author Richard Paul Evans said, “Humans need to belong. Humans have always needed tribes. Exile from the tribe is a form of execution.”
As the world becomes increasingly digital, intra-personal communication through social media and texting can come to represent a form of exile by replacing face-to-face conversations and interpersonal connections. While the observation here appears simple: choose happiness by putting down the phone, coming out from behind the screen, and connecting face-to-face, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing—and that's where the cynics get it wrong.
You can have the benefit of both—vibrant, interpersonal relationships where you look deep in another’s eyes and also the pleasure of that all familiar jolt when a surprise text comes your way.
If we rely exclusively on electronics as the conduit of a relationship, we may create a false sense of connection; from this void of real human connection can come anxiety and depression. A recent study of three hundred university students demonstrated this correlation: The amount of time that the students spent on their phones was negatively correlated with their mental health. In other words, the more time spent with electronics, the less content they felt.
The correlation between mental health and the reliance on electronics goes even deeper than the measurement of time spent with the devices. It comes down to intention: Social media can be a boom for pleasure, but it depends on intent.
For those individuals who indicated that they were simply alleviating boredom with their electronic toys, there was not a significant relationship between the electronics and poor mental health. For these individuals, social connections through a screen were a pleasure.
It was only when the intention was to use electronics to cope with or escape from anxiety-producing situations, the study participants showed troubling scores on the mental health questionnaire. It's only when using electronics to escape day-to-day life that we negatively impact mental health and exacerbate unhealthy predispositions.
This study showed that the type of online activity being used matters, too, and here is where research indicates when social media can be particularly dangerous. One study showed that time spent on Facebook can lead to feelings of envy and depression. Comparing ourselves to others can often fuel negative psychology and makes us less willing to reach out generously to others. When we feel envy, anxiety, and depression, we shut down.
So here's the happy balance: Enjoy a bout of screen time and then walk away, gaze at the sky, sit on the porch with a friend, pet your dog, take a walk, and clink glasses in real time with a real person.
If each of us does just a tad more of this, perhaps we will give Finland a run for its money in the 2020 World Happiness Report!
E. C. Tandoc Jr., P. Ferruccib, and M. Duffy, “Facebook Use, Envy, and Depression Among College Students: Is Facebooking De- pressing?,” Computers in Human Behavior 43 (2015): 139–146.
R. F. Baumeister, K. D. Vohs, J. L. Aaker, and E. N. Garbinsky, “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,” Journal of Positive Psychology 8, no. 6 (2013): 505–516.