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Friday, December 24, 2004

Technology and Happiness

We covered James Surowiecki's book - the wisdom of crowds recently. Surowiecki has come with an excellent article questioning the relationship between technological advancement and happiness. Excerpts with edits and my comments added:

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 luxu¬ries, 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 they’re no happier than they were in 1946 (which is when formal surveys of happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say they’re “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 world’s 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.
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, there’s 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. 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? The relationship between happiness and technology has been a perennial subject for social critics and philosophers since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. 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 doesn’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. 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. “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 people’s 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—it’s 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. It’s 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.

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. . 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 you’re 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.

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 you’ll 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 mechanisms—collaborative filtering, shopbots, consumer-rating sites—that 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 people’s work. This matters because the workplace is central to people’s 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. The most important impact of technology on people’s 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; it’s that it doesn’t necessarily make them happier.) 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, they’re 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. End of the day, people should come home from work as happy individuals and an ethos of happiness should prevail in the society - The point is whether technlogy is able to directly contribute to building sustainable overall happiness. My Take: I would think yes in three ways, A. By creating a huge industry, technology is defintely creating new buisness value and by extension helping the stakeholders. B. By making life better fot the society as a whole C. Tech industry is one of the fastest innovators and so is able to roll out newer solutions/products faster - in the process helping society at large happy by providing new variety!!.

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