As I See It: Why The Long Face?
April 8, 2019 Victor Rozek
For an increasing number of Americans, the elusive search for happiness starts and ends each day with screen time. Smartphones, symbolic of a larger attachment to, and dependence on technology, have become the fifth appendage, glued to their owners like fake fingernails. They amplify and simplify, offering seemingly endless relationships without the need for relating, and limitless connection without the bother of bonding.
To keep the voracious social media beast fed, most of us have become both content providers and consumers. Everyone, it seems, is flogging their own reality show. Each day we post our next episode and anxiously await reviews. We check our devices for audience reaction. Over and over. If the reviews are indifferent (or worse, scarce), we long for affirmation and will continue to post until we get it. And if the reviews are positive, we long for more of the same and will continue to post in order to get another little dose of dopamine – the brain’s pleasure and reward chemical. And like any proper addiction, over time it takes bigger doses to get the same high.
Are we clever enough, funny enough, intelligent enough? Do we inspire envy, jealousy? Are we attractive enough, likeable enough? Will one more affirmation finally make us happy? Only the smartphone knows for sure which is why nearly half of all adolescents in the U.S. admit to being online almost constantly.
But whatever validation is so ardently sought, is not being found. In fact, the positive outcomes usually associated with inter-personal connection are often inverted. Tess Riley, writing for HuffPost, examined the results of the recent Global Happiness Index. In her article, Why People In Finland Are So Much Happier Than Americans, she notes: “Several studies have found a correlation between the time young adults spend online and a reduction in well-being. For example, girls who spent five or more hours a day on social media were found to be three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.” Boys, I suspect, suffer similar outcomes but in young men depression often manifests as chronic anger.
Happiness is like a Hydra – multi-headed and hard to pin down. In the United States, the national criteria for happiness has more to do with how much technology we sell than with how many people find contentment using it. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), may be a reliable measurement of economic wellbeing, but it has no conscience or discernment. It thrives equally well on cancer patients, natural disasters, gun sales, alcohol consumption; anything that pumps dollars into the economy is judged to be beneficial. Human impacts are not considered.
Which may in part explain why, in the last two years, the U.S. dropped five places from 14th to 19th in the Global Happiness Index. The annual report measures the happiness levels of residents in 156 countries. For a country that prides itself on its exceptionalism, that is a jarring statistic. How is such a meager ranking possible in a nation of seemingly infinite privilege and potential? How can it be that residents of 18 other nations consider themselves better off than citizens of a country that not long ago was the envy of the world?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that other developed nations are moving on from the belief that endless growth is the sole pathway to happiness, realizing that it is neither beneficial nor even possible. New Zealand, a pioneer in progressive economic policy is beginning to recognize, in the words of public policy researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw that “We keep chasing economic growth as the holy grail, but it’s not bringing well-being for our country. We should … stop our addiction to GDP growth as our sole or primary indicator of how we’re doing.
“The easiest way to think about that,” she says, “is that you can only take resources from the environment to make wealth for so long before the taking creates so much harm that it erodes any benefit derived from the wealth gain. In other words, the wealth begins to destroy us.”
Certainly, the realities of human impacts on the planet, amplified in poorer nations, can move the happiness meter. It’s hard to be happy when the weather destroys your home every few years. Sad-faced emojis received on your smartphone will be cold comfort. But three other factors were mentioned that likely play a more immediate role in determining happiness levels: Connection, Community, and Not Sweating the Big Stuff.
In the United States, connection and community are increasingly the imagined by-products of on-line interaction. Real communities are typically forged through face-to-face interaction and cooperation; trust building through the implementation of shared goals, and concern for the welfare of all the people living in close proximity.
Technology offers chat rooms and messenger groups, but there is no actual human contact and virtual communities know no boundaries. So a nation heavily dependent on technology will have fewer opportunities for genuine connection and actual community building.
Riley notes that the Global Happiness Index concludes that, “although burgeoning information technologies have increased the scale and complexities of human connectivity, they risk the quality of social connections in ways not yet fully understood and for which remedies do not yet exist.”
But some remedies do exist, especially in regard to not sweating the big stuff. If peace of mind contributes to achieving happiness, perhaps residents of Finland and other Scandinavian countries consistently rank near the top because their citizens do not live in a near-constant state of apprehension, fearing that a single incident like the loss of a job or a serious illness could destroy their family. They know they are not alone when facing some of life’s greatest challenges. They relax knowing they have a safety net. Yes, they pay higher taxes, but whatever happens, they know their children will be educated, they can obtain healthcare when they need it, and their elders will not have to eat cat food in order to afford medicine.
If there are lessons to be gleamed from this year’s Global Happiness Index, it is that technology cannot substitute for caring. And further, that governments can’t fake caring for their people. Little flag lapel pins are not proof of patriotism, nor are thoughts and prayers evidence of compassion. Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything, summarizes the benefit of shifting from dollar-centric measurements of wellbeing, to people-centric outcomes.
What Finland has managed to do, she says, is put policies in place that help people “achieve this lovely, ordinary life.”
When explained so simply and elegantly, it doesn’t seem nearly as threatening and formidable a task to achieve a fairer, more secure, and less stressful society. Even with our unhealthy attachment to smartphones, we should be able to do better than 19th place.