‘Why I believe digital is making us unhappy’

Danger: the constant approval and attention seeking on social media can leave us vulnerable
by Izabella Kaminska

A journalist specialising in finance and economics, she has been with The Financial Times since 2008. She previously reported from Poland and Azerbaijan.

Digital technology has improved our lives in many ways. But what happens when we become dependent on it? Research suggests that too much of a good thing can leave us depressed…

Despite all the technology that connects us, much of it there supposedly to make our lives easier and better, people have never been more depressed.

A case in point: the UK’s National Health Service disclosed last week that a record number of antidepressants were prescribed in England last year. Worldwide the figures are no more reassuring. World Health Organization statistics show more than 322m people were afflicted with depression worldwide in 2015, some 4.4% of the global population. And the numbers keep increasing, in both developed and developing countries.

This state of global psychological misery runs counter to the message that greater digital connectivity, faster access to goods and services and instantaneous gratification through frictionless systems is the pathway to universal happiness.

Many of us have become addicted to short-term reward hits — think of compulsive social media checking

Have the peddlers of high-tech systems, in their obsession to quench our short-term desires for their own profit, inadvertently become part of the problem rather than the solution? In a forthcoming book entitled The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig makes a compelling argument that this may be the case.

Part of the issue, according to Dr Lustig, is that in the modern age we have come to conflate pleasure with happiness. Pleasure, he notes, is all about the phenomenon of reward. This can be achieved by way of everything from impulsive shopping sprees to outright substance abuse. Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of general contentment that requires little in the way of a trigger.

The difference is important because chronic excessive reward eventually leads to both addiction and depression, the exact opposite of happiness. Moreover, a vicious circle is often created, whereby the victim attempts to deal with the resulting depression by indulging even more in the original activity. Dr Lustig’s most famous work in this area focuses on the role played by sugar addiction in the obesity epidemic.

Yet the marketing strategies of big businesses, which have perfected the art of exploiting our pleasure inclinations for the purpose of addicting us to their products, hardly take these depressive consequences into consideration. In the process, many of us have become addicted to the cleverly constructed short-term reward hits these corporates have unleashed upon us — think of compulsive social media checking, clickbait, gaming and digital “nudging”.

Many of these compulsive behaviours have little to do with traditional substance abuse, even if they may eventually lead to it. For the most part the dopamine hits delivered are more akin to those associated with extreme sports or gambling.

Nevertheless, the effects on our psychological state may be the same. Over time our brains become conditioned to hoping that each click leads to a bigger and better hit than the last, or that the next social media response will be more flattering to our ego than the one before.

The associated feelings rarely, however, lead to happiness or fulfilment. On the contrary, the constant approval and attention seeking on social media can leave us vulnerable when the responses aren’t what we hope them to be.

Should it, in that case, be a surprise that more connectivity, more social media and ever more instantaneous access to pleasure is leading to widespread depression?

Not convinced? Ask yourself how you felt the last time you had to be parted from your mobile phone. If the answer was anxious, restless and distraught, you may have more of a habit than you thought.

This article was first published in the FT. Reprinted with permission.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be a better place if computers and smartphones did not exist?


  1. Over the next week, try to use your phone and social media as little as possible. Keep a journal of how you get on, what emotions you feel, and so on.

Word Watch

Record number
In 2016, 64.7m items of antidepressants were prescribed, up from 61m in 2015 (and 31m in 2006). Some see this as evidence that doctors are handing out drugs too freely. Others argue that it simply shows that more people are seeking help for mental health issues.
“Friction” is a term used in the tech industry to mean anything that make the user’s experience of a product more complicated. Amazon’s 1-Click Ordering is an example of a company trying to decrease friction.
The Hacking of the American Mind
To be published in September 2017 by Avery Publishing Group.
Robert Lustig
Dr Lustig is an American paediatric endocrinologist — meaning that he studies the endocrine system, which produces hormones among other things.
When a company designs its software so as to try to guide the user toward a certain course of action, it is said to “nudge” them. E.g. a food delivery app that suggests you give a tip.
A chemical that is involved in many kinds of addiction. See The Guardian’s article in Become An Expert.

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