In the 20th century, Americans, Europeans, and East Asians enjoyed material and technological advances that were unimaginable in previous eras. In the United States, for instance, gross domestic product per capita tripled from 1950 to 2000. Life expectancy soared. The benefits of capitalism spread more widely among the population. The boom in productivity after World War II made goods better and cheaper at the same time. Things that were once luxuries, such as jet travel and long-distance phone calls, became necessities. And even though Americans seemed to work extraordinarily hard (at least compared to Europeans), their avid pursuit of entertainment turned media and leisure into multibillion-dollar industries.
By most standards, then, you’d have to say that Americans are better off now than they were in the middle of the last century. Oddly, though, if you ask Americans how happy they are, you find that theyre no happier than they were in 1946 (which is when formal surveys of happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say theyre very happy has fallen slightly since the early 1970s – even though the income of people born in 1940 has increased, on average, 116 percent over the course of their working lives. Nor is this a uniquely American phenomenon: you can find similar data for most developed countries. Perhaps the most striking example of progress having little impact on what economists call people’s sense of subjective well-being is Japan. Between 1960 and the late 1980s, Japan’s economy was utterly transformed, as the nation went from a low-cost supplier of cheap manufactured goods to what is perhaps the worlds most technologically sophisticated society. Over that stretch, the country’s GDP quintupled. And yet by the late 1980s, the Japanese said they were no happier than they had been in 1960.
Even more strikingly, life seems worse for a significant minority of citizens in the rich world. Since the 1950s, reports of major depression have increased tenfold, and while much of that increase undoubtedly represents a new willingness to diagnose mental illness, theres a general consensus among mental-health experts that it also reflects a real development. People are more anxious, trust government and business less, and get divorced more often. In the 1960s Tom Wolfe confounded those who fretted about the gloominess of American life by insisting that Americans were in the midst of a happiness explosion. Forty years later, plenty of people would disagree.
There is, though, one group of Americans that is imperturbably sunny: the Amish. Their depression rates are negligibly low relative to the rest of societys. Their happiness levels are consistently high. The Pennsylvania Amish, when asked how much they agree with the statement: You are satisfied with your life (using a scale of 1 to 10), turn out to be as happy as the members of the Forbes 400. The Amish, though, do without most of what we think of as modern technology. They don’t rely on the automobile, don’t need the Internet, and seem to prefer stability and permanence to the heady growth that propels innovation and the U.S. economy. The comparison is a little facile (the Amish have a lot of other characteristics that make people cheerful, including strong community ties, stable families, and religious faith). But it suggests an interesting question: is it possible that technology, instead of liberating us, is holding us back? Is technological progress merely a treadmill, and if so, would we be happier if we stepped off of it?
Can we trust people to know what makes them happy?
The relationship between happiness and technology has been a perennial subject for social critics and philosophers since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. But its been left largely unexamined by economists and social scientists. The attention that they have paid to the subject of happiness has involved the more capacious relationship between broad material prosperity and well-being. Gregg Easterbrook’s book The Progress Paradox grappled with this question directly. The economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer published an academic survey of the subject in Happiness and Economics in 2001. But the truly groundbreaking work on the relationship between prosperity and well-being was done by the economist Richard Easterlin, who in 1974 wrote a famous paper entitled Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Easterlin showed that when it came to developed countries, there was no real correlation between a nation’s income level and its citizens’ happiness. Money, Easterlin argued, could not buy happiness – at least not after a certain point. Easterlin showed that though poverty was strongly correlated with misery, once a country was solidly middle-class, getting wealthier didn’t seem to make its citizens any happier.
Easterlin’s work did not get much attention when it was first published, but its implications were profound. By suggesting that there was no direct link between wealth and well-being, Easterlin was challenging some basic assumptions of mainstream economics. Most economists begin with the idea that people act in their own self-interest most of the time, and that they usually understand that self-interest pretty well. The choices people make, therefore, must be better than the alternatives (or else people would make other choices). By this argument, wealth is a good thing because it increases peoples options and gives them more freedom to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue. For classical economists, it was almost tautological to say that the wealthier people are, the happier they are, too.
Easterlin’s relatively simple study suggested that if what people said about themselves was to be believed, you could give people more choices and more wealth and not have much of an impact on their sense of well-being. Well-being is actually the central idea of economics, says Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University. But weve never really tried to measure it. We’ve used proxies, and we’ve said, If we’re richer, and we have more options, we must be better off. But we haven’t tried to find out if that’s really true.
One response to this, of course, is to say that you can’t really trust what people say about themselves in surveys, no matter how well executed. Pay attention to what people do, and youll get a real sense of what they want. On this view, worrying about whether people say they are happy with the choices they make is nonsense. Of course they are. If people spend a lot of money and time buying and using personal computers and wireless phones and personal digital assistants, then these gadgets must make them happy.
There is an inherent logic to this argument, and it has the great virtue of not asking economists to decipher peoples motives. But in the last decade or more, deciphering peoples motives (or at least their behavior) is something more economists have become interested in doing, and to great effect. Behavioral economists have moved away from assumptions about individuals perfect rationality in order to develop what they think of as a more realistic model of economic behavior. They’ve explored the idea, hardly radical outside economics but pretty radical inside it, that people might sometimes make mistakes, and that their decisions (whether individual or collective) could actually make them unhappy. For instance, behavioral economists have shown that peoples preferences are what is sometimes called time-inconsistent. We would like to save in the long term, but in the short term we’d rather spend. Just as strikingly, behavioral economists have shown that human beings aren’t very good at anticipating their own desires. Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, demonstrated that students, when asked to eat a bowl of their favorite ice cream eight days in a row, had a poor sense of whether they would or would not enjoy the experience.
Considering how many decisions about new technologies are based on little or no concrete evidence and involve guessing about the future, it seems plausible that people can get stuck with technologies that don’t make them happy but that are hard to get rid of. Plausible, but not certain: as well see, when it comes to the vexed relationship between technology and happiness, certainty is not an easy thing to come by.
The question of technology: net loss or net gain?
In trying to decipher how technology affects well-being, then, it’s worth paying attention to a few things. First, there have been few rigorous studies of the specific relationship between technological change and how people feel about their own lives. So the question Does more (or better) technology make people happy? is irreducibly speculative. Second, there is something inherently unstable about peoples accounts of their own states of mind. Forget people’s uncertainty about what will make them happy in the future; can we even trust that people know what makes them happy now?
Most seriously, thinking about technology is hard because people adapt so quickly to the technologies that are available to them. If you had asked someone in 1870 whether she would be happier if she had a personal vehicle that would give her the freedom to travel hundreds of miles a day, in whatever direction she chose, at relatively little cost; the opportunity to fly across the ocean in a few hours; and the ability to speak to people who were thousands of miles away in real time for a few cents a minute, chances are very good that she would have said, yes, it would make her a lot happier. But today, it’s the rare person who gets excited about cars, planes, and telephones. We recognize their utility, but they’re also sources of frustration and stress. On balance, most people would say they’d rather have cars and telephones than not, but – and this is what makes thinking about happiness so hard – its not clear they really make us happier.
This seems to be close to a universal phenomenon. In fact, one of happiness scholars’ most important insights is that people adapt very quickly to good news. Take lottery winners. One famous study showed that although winners were very, very happy when they won, their euphoria quickly evaporated, and after a while their moods and sense of well-being were indistinguishable from what they had been before the victory. Psychologists even have a word for the phenomenon: hedonic adaptation.
So, too, with technology: no matter how dramatic a new innovation is, no matter how much easier it makes our lives, it is very easy to take it for granted. You can see this principle at work in the world of technology every day, as things that once seemed miraculous soon become mundane and, worse, frustrating when they don’t work perfectly. Its hard, it turns out, to keep in mind what things were like before the new technology came along. That’s why broadband users should occasionally use dial-up: it makes them appreciate just what a difference a high-speed connection really does make.
Does our fast absorption of technological progress mean, then, that technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of technology’s impact, for good and ill, more complicated. Let’s start with the downside. There are certain ways in which technology makes life obviously worse. Telemarketing, traffic jams, and identity theft all come to mind. These are all phenomena that make people consciously unhappy. But for the most part, modern critiques of technology have focused not so much on specific, bad technologies as on what Heidegger called the question of technology – that is, the impact of technology on our humanity.
Those critiques have staked out two apparently opposed positions, which nonetheless share a common skepticism about peoples’ ability to use technology to their own ends. The first position, which one can see in the work of the French critic Jacques Ellul or, more oddly, in the novels of Philip K. Dick, is that technological progress is leading to an ever more rigid, controlled, soulless society, in which its easier for people to be manipulated and monitored. The second position, which has been well articulated in books like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, is that technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience, which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is increasingly an illusion, and people’s relationships to each other, mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.
Theres obviously something to both arguments. Privacy has become increasingly fragile in a world of linked databases. In many workplaces, technologies like keystroke monitoring and full recordings of phone calls make it easier to watch workers. The notion that technology disrupts relationships and fractures community gained mainstream prominence as an attack on television, but in recent years it has also become central to the critique of the Internet. In Bowling Alone, Putnam suggests that TV is a chief culprit in the gradual isolation of Americans from each other and the erosion of the social capital that makes societies run smoothly. Similarly, the deleterious effects of the Internet, which supposedly further isolates people from what critics always call the real world, were pointed to early on in a famous study of 169 Pittsburgh residents, Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? According to the study, published in the September 1998 issue of American Psychologist, instead of allowing them to connect with a much wider set of potential friends and exposing them to information they might otherwise never have come across, the Internet made people more depressed and lonely than they would otherwise have been.
This broad criticism of technology’s impact on relationships is an interesting one and is especially relevant to the question of happiness, because one of the few things we can say for certain is that the more friends and close relationships people have, the happier they tend to be. But the evidence that the Internet or even television fundamentally erodes relationships as opposed to changing them is not especially convincing. For instance, when the authors of that 1998 study revisited the question a few years later, using a slightly different methodology, they arrived at the opposite conclusion, finding that the Net had a slightly beneficial impact on peoples sociability, connections with others, and sense of well-being.
Obviously, a technology as wide-ranging and ubiquitous as the Net will have myriad, immeasurable effects. But the Internet is essentially a communications technology, one that, like the telephone, allows people to expand their affective and informational networks. The Net is hardly the ideal public sphere, where all discussions are rational and everyone agrees on a definition of the common good. But it is a public sphere, and one that crucially functions without gatekeepers.
The dominant critiques of technology have, then, something exaggerated about them. But one way in which technology, as a rule, does make people less happy is in its relentless generation of newness. One of the key insights of happiness studies is that people have a very hard time being content with what they have, at least when they know that others have more. Today, technological change is so rapid that when you buy something, you do so knowing that in a few months there’s going to be a better, faster version of the product, and that youre going to be stuck with the old one. Someone else, in other words, has it better. It’s as if disappointment were built into acquisition from the very beginning (unless you’re buying a 70-inch plasma screen, in which case you should be fine for at least a couple of years). There’s no way to circumvent this drooping of the spirit, which creates dissatisfaction in the heart of the modern consumer.
Technology la carte: bad food, but bigger portions
Daily stress, a nagging sense of disappointment, fear that the government knows a lot more about you than you would like it to: if these are some of the ways in which technology reduces peoples sense of well-being, how (if at all) does it increase their happiness? This is terrain that is ordinarily left to the cyberoptimists and transhumanists, who believe that technology should be celebrated for the way it remakes and improves our bodies and minds. But setting flights of fancy aside, there is some intriguingly suggestive work about how certain new technologies make people not just objectively better off but also happier.
In the marketplace, for instance, the Internet has made consumers happier not so much by cutting prices as by expanding the enormous array of choices available to them in a manageable way. In the happiness stakes, expanding consumers options is really a double-edged sword: consumers do have a preference for variety and novelty, and the more choices you have, the better the chance that youll find the thing you really want. But too much choice can actually paralyze people, leaving them, paradoxically, worse off.
A well-known experiment conducted by Professors Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar (at Stanford and Columbia, respectively) illustrates the point: they set up two tables in a supermarket, one with 24 jars of jam and the other with six, and offered discount coupons to anyone who stopped to sample the jams. Of the people who stopped at the 24-jam table, only 3 percent went on to buy jam, while 30 percent of the people who stopped at the six-jam table did. More choices often make people frustrated because they have no reasonable way to navigate through them. What the Internet offers, at least in a nascent form, is a host of mechanismscollaborative filtering, shopbots, consumer-rating sitesthat give people the tools to make informed choices relatively quickly and easily, reducing paralysis and making them happier. The important point here is that among the infinite choices that the Internet offers, one is the option of less choice.
Technology has also radically changed the nature of work, or at least some peoples work. This matters because the workplace is central to peoples sense of well-being and is more important to them than anything, including family. Studies show that nothing – not even divorce – makes people more unhappy than unemployment. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, technologys impact on the workplace was ambiguous at best. While the mechanization of agriculture allowed people to escape the farm, it often propelled them straight into heavy industrial labor, which was well paying but often miserable. Technology increased the productivity of workers, but it also diminished their autonomy: superiors controlled more of the details of their working days. Even the office work of the postwar period exemplified by the endless rows of desks in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was deeply bureaucratic and controlled. But recently, the rise of the networked society, and the advent of knowledge-based businesses, means that workplaces have become less formal and more open, even while remaining efficient and productive. Already, as Arlie Hochschild points out in The Time Bind, a significant percentage of Americans find the atmosphere at work more congenial than the one at home. As the number of knowledge workers grows, and as companies strive to keep them happy, well-being should increase.
The most important impact of technology on peoples sense of well-being, though, is in the field of health care. Before the Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before the age of 30. Today, life expectancy for women in Western Europe is almost 80 years, and it continues to increase. The point is obvious, but important to note: the vast majority of people are happy to be alive, and the more time they get on earth, the better off they feel they’ll be. (Remember, the point about prosperity and happiness is not that prosperity makes people unhappy; its that it doesnt necessarily make them happier.) Now, the picture is a little more complicated than this. Living a few extra years as a geriatric may not be ideal. But until very recently, life for the vast majority of people was (in Hobbess formulation) nasty, brutish, and short. Technology has changed that, at least for people in the rich world. As much as we should worry about the rising cost of health care and the problem of the uninsured, its also worth remembering how valuable for our spirits as well as our bodies are the benefits that medical technology and pharmaceuticals have brought us.
On a deeper level, what the technological improvement of our health and our longevity underscores is a paradox of any discussion of happiness on a national or a global level: even though people may not be happier, even though they are wealthier and possess more technology, theyre still as hungry as ever for more time. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke: the food may not be so great, but we want the portions to be as big as possible.
Technology may only improve the taste of the meals slightly, but it makes them a lot bigger, and for most of us, that has the promise of something like happiness.
Three things to know about the White House’s executive order on AI
Experts say its emphasis on content labeling, watermarking, and transparency represents important steps forward.
How generative AI is boosting the spread of disinformation and propaganda
In a new report, Freedom House documents the ways governments are now using the tech to amplify censorship.
A controversial US surveillance program is up for renewal. Critics are speaking out.
Here's what you need to know.
Meta is giving researchers more access to Facebook and Instagram data
There’s still so much we don’t know about social media’s impact. But Meta president of global affairs Nick Clegg tells MIT Technology Review that he hopes new tools the company just released will start to change that.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.