Behavioral Positivity

Character Strengths: What are they and why are they important?

While positive psychology itself is only 30 years old, it benefits from hundreds of years of psychology research and tens of thousands of years of philosophy research. One aspect of positive psychology that has particularly benefited from this long history of research is that of character strengths. Character strengths, according to the VIA Institute of Character, are a “common language” of personality traits that (Niemiec, 2018):

  1. reflect our personal identity;
  2. produce positive outcomes for ourselves and others;
  3. contribute to the collective good.

The importance of character strengths is evident in the definition alone – impacting our personality, our relationships with others, and overall benefit to the world’s well-being. There are 24 character strengths in total, classified into six distinct virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The complete list of character traits and their definitions can be found in Appendix 1.

Before diving into the application side – how to determine and leverage character strengths in everyday life – it’s important to cover a few definitional points (Niemiec, 2018):

  1. Character strengths are multi-dimensional. This means that character strengths should be viewed in degrees (i.e. it makes sense to consider how much of a character strength you have) as opposed to categorical (i.e. it doesn’t make sense to ask whether or not you have a character strength). You have all 24 character strengths, though you likely over index on some more than others.
  • Character strengths are plural. This means that you have multiple character strengths that you express interdependently and in unique combinations. For example, while thinking through a complex project at work, it is possible to simultaneously express ‘leadership, ‘perspective,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘prudence.’ With 24 character strengths, individual differences, and varied contexts, that are many unique combinations of expression.
  • Character strengths are contextually dependent. This means that you may express more or less of a character strength depending on the context you are in at any given time. For example, you may find it easier to express kindness at a family dinner than in a stressful work environment.

Martin Seligman (2011), the founder of modern day positive psychology, defines well-being using a multi-pronged approach known as PERMA which stands for Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Accomplishment (A). Seligman’s research suggests that the 24 character strengths underpin all five of these elements of well-being. He goes on to explain that deploying one’s top strengths can lead to improvement in each element. In other words, identifying and leveraging your character strengths can make you happier across a bunch of different domains.

Importantly, while character strengths are somewhat stable, research demonstrates they have the capacity for development (Niemiec, 2018). Perhaps most exciting is that deliberate focus on improving a character strength can yield empirical changes in personality. While this is not a new concept – Aristotle in 4 BCE emphasized that virtues could be acquired through practice – we now have empirical evidence to support the idea of developing character traits through sustained deliberate practice and effort.

A natural reaction to learning that character strengths can be developed and that developing character strengths leads to improved well-being is a desire to understand our “weakest” character strengths and devise a strategy to improve them. While not inherently a bad strategy, evidence suggests that deliberate use of one’s signature strengths may actually provide a more significant increase in well-being (Niemiec, 2018; Seligman & Peterson, 2004). Seligman and Peterson (2004) define signature strengths as the character traits that you most frequently exercise and appreciate of yourself. They tend to be one’s top character traits.

Ok, ready to uncover your character strengths and start putting them to use? It’s as easy as taking the free character strengths questionnaire on the VIA Institute on Character website. Feel free to post your top strengths in the comments section and reach out with questions. Here’s to your improved well-being!

Appendix 1: Character Traits

(Source: 2018 VIA Institute on Character)

References

Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. New Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Creating a Positive Team

This post covers the research and planning phase designed to enable a successful implementation of a Positive Team strategy within your organization.

While there are many factors involved in creating a Positive Team – and some will work better in some organizations and for some leaders than others – this specific strategy focuses on applying the latest research on High-Quality Connections (HQCs) and Prosocial Behavior as part of a larger, cohesive positive leadership approach.

High-Quality Connections

What’s the value of High-Quality Connections?

High-Quality Connections are interactions between pairs that are positive in both subjective experience and the structural features of the connection (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2011). These types of connections have been shown to drive benefits for individuals, groups and teams, and organizations as a whole (Stephens et. al., 2011; M. Worline, personal communications, March 3, 2018). Within teams, HQCs can drive better learning, more adaptivity, and more creativity. Within organizations more broadly, the results of HQCs include enhanced cooperation, increased adaptability and organizational resilience, higher levels of psychological safety, and greater employee attachment.

How to generate more High-Quality Connections?

According to Worline (personal communications, March 3, 2018) and Dutton (2003), there are four primary pathways for building HQCs: 1) Respectful engagement: engaging the other in a way that sends a message of value and worth; 2) Task enabling: helping in another person’s successful performance; 3) Trusting: conveying to the other person that we believe they will meet our expectations and are dependable; and 4) Playing: participating in activities with the intention of having fun.

How to apply this research to your team?

1) Respectful engagement: you can make presence a priority, withhold judgement and always give the benefit of the doubt, and make an effort to be an active listener; 2) Task enabling: you can deliberately focus your energy on teaching, helping, nurturing, advocating, and accommodating the people on your team; 3) Trusting: you can work to consistently seek input, share resources, use inclusive language, and be open and vulnerable with your team; 4) Playing: you can foster a culture of fun, making time for playful connections and storytelling. In addition, leaders’ behaviors tend to model and influence appropriate conduct for teams (Dutton & Spreitzer, 2014), so you can focus on transparently modelling and clearly valuing HQC building within you own style of working with colleagues.

Prosocial Behavior

What’s the value of Prosocial Behavior?

Evidence suggests that prosocial motivation, the desire to have a positive impact on other people, can help employees to take initiative, assist others, persist in meaningful tasks, and accept negative feedback, in addition to a slew of other benefits (Grant & Berg, 2010). Moreover, Grant (2013) has shown that employees who are givers, people who look to help others without any strings attached, disproportionately end up at the very top and the very bottom of many business success metrics. While this demonstrates the potential benefits of being a giver (rising to the top), it also highlights the risk associated with it. One of the key strategies recommend by Grant (2013) is to set careful boundaries, ensuring employees take care of themselves (including saying no to things), as opposed to exclusively engaging in unconditional giving and running out of energy and resources.

How to generate more Prosocial Behavior?

Research has established that receiving expressions of gratitude can increase the likelihood for prosocial behavior (Grant & Gino, 2010). Specifically, when people experience an expression of gratitude they feel an increase in social worth, or sense of being socially valued, leading to an increase in subsequent prosocial behaviors. Additional research by Grant (2013) suggests that focusing on how the work employees are doing impacts the lives of others can lead to higher rates of productivity, especially when compared to simply thinking about themselves or extrinsic rewards. For example, simply meeting a real person whose life was positively impacted by their work can shift one’s mindset and motivation to work harder to drive more positive impact in the world. Grant (2013) goes on to promote the value of assessing one’s own giving style in various contexts and focusing specifically on the kind of giving that is most energizing and productive.

How to apply this research to your team?

You can utilize a three-pronged approach to embed prosocial behavior into the team. First, you can create a culture of gratitude by transparently expressing gratitude to members on the team and across the company. Second, you can ensure your team members have a chance to interact with your end customers, both in the onboarding month and on an ongoing basis. Third, you can encourage your team members to use your product themselves. The more experience employees gain with their organization offerings, the more they can internalize the customer’s perspective and understand their impact (Dutton & Spreitzer, 2014). Additionally, you can set model behavior for successful giving and based on Grant’s (2013) advice and focus on coaching your team members on how to find their own giving style to create a culture in which they help others succeed while maintaining their own energy and resources.

 

References

Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966). The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science, 4(6), 227-228.

Dutton, J. E. (2003). Breathing life into organizational studies. Journal of Management Inquiry, 12(1), 5-19.

Dutton, J. E., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2014). How to be a positive leader: Small actions, big impact. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(6), 946.

Grant, A. M., & Berg, J. M. (2012). Prosocial motivation at work. In The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship.

Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.

Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. E. (2011). High quality connections. The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship, 385-399.

 

Activity: Gratitude Visit

Title: Gratitude Visit

Activity: Think about someone who has had a positive impact in your life (a family member, old teacher, colleague, etc.) and set aside 15 minutes to write a letter expressing your gratitude for this person. If possible, then find time to deliver the letter in person, if not over the phone, expressing your gratitude.

Science: The field of positive psychology has produced many positive interventions empirically evidenced to increase well-being, and the gratitude visit is one of the most effective at driving positive effects (Seligman et al., 2005). The writing of the letter alone can serve to cultivate gratitude, which can lead to improved happiness and well-being. Moreover, delivering and savoring the letter alongside the recipient can lead to strengthened social relationships, a key driver of well-being and physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Like many positive interventions, however, the positive effect does not seem to sustain for long after just one letter, suggesting value in repeating the exercise at regular intervals.

Results: I performed the writing of my gratitude letter alongside others at a Positive Psychology Meetup in New York. I chose to write to a lifelong friend, specifically thanking him for always being there for me in the best and worst of times. I was amazed at the feeling of writing the letter, truly grounding me in how fortunate I am to have a friend like that in my life. While I have always been grateful for my friends, this exercise gave me the space to be more thoughtful and deliberate around the gratitude.

I called my friend that night to read him the letter (we live on opposite sides of the country). It was a bit awkward at first – although we’ve been friends for over 20 years, we’ve never had this type of interaction – but we were both incredibly moved by the call. Ultimately, I think both my friend and I derived significant benefit from the experience, and am equally excited to know that we’ll each have a copy of the letter for years to come.

Thoughts:

  1. Deliberate gratitude is important, but easy to forget: This exercise served as a good reminder of the importance of deliberate gratitude. It is too easy to go through days without truly appreciating what we have. Dedicating an extended period of time to reflecting on how fortunate I am to have certain people in my life shaped my entire day (and week) for the better.
  2. Accountability leads to a higher chance of success: Knowing the delivery of my letter could be an awkward experience, I was cognizant that I might put off having the call with my friend. To mitigate that risk I made a promise to the other Meetup attendees that I would make the call that night and post a comment in the Meetup event after completing it. This relatively light-touch accountability helped me follow through on completing the exercise in a timely manner.   
  3. Sustainable well-being effects requires further research: My lifelong friend happens to have a PhD in psychology and after the delivery of the letter we began discussing the sustainability of positive interventions, or more specifically the lack of research on long-term effects. We came up with multiple ideas on how to make the clear benefits related to gratitude, well-being, and social connection from this exercise sustainable, but are both hopeful that academic researchers will continue to explore this space with empirical experiments.

Next Steps: Based on the research relating to sustainability, I plan to do this exercise on a semi-regular basis. It was a great experience and there are many others in my life that I would like to share my gratitude with in this manner. For example, I have a 6th grade teacher who helped me get excited about math and science, a previous manager who instilled confidence in me, and parents who shaped me into who I am today. What great opportunities to practice gratitude, and even better that we will both derive benefit from this simple exercise.

Research:

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

Positive Psychology: The Value of Close Social Relationships

“One of the strongest findings in the literature of happiness is that happy people have better relationships than their less happy peers” (Lyubomirsky, 2007, p. 125)

“You will not be surprised by my three-word summary of positive psychology: Other people matter” (Peterson, 2006, p. 249)

We often talk about the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness, especially with new research demonstrating that social isolation is on the rise. But the flip side of the equation, the wide-array of positive benefits derived from close social relationships, has recently become well documented in psychology. At the highest level, close social relationships are strongly associated with both physical health and psychological well-being (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). Research has shown that humans have an innate need for love and connection, manifesting itself as early as infancy (Haidt, 2006). This holds from an evolutionary standpoint, as we know our ancestors’ probability of survival greatly increased when they shared benevolent social ties with those around them (Beckes & Coan, 2011). Perhaps it’s not surprising that children introduce the word friend into their vocabulary as early as three or four years old, as many as 75% of nursery school students have reciprocated friendships, and teenagers spend almost a third of their waking hours in the company of friends (Peterson, 2006).

How exactly do close social relationships drive well-being? Research suggests both a direct association, through the innate benefits of having positive social relationships, and indirectly, through slightly more complicated mechanisms, like self-expansion and capitalization (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). The self-expansion theory claims that individuals are motivated to increase the bounds of their selves by incorporating features of others into their life, and as a result, the closer the relationship, the more overlap between the individuals (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). This is essentially the scientific backdrop behind the popular sentiment of the importance of who you surround yourself with. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that in close relationships, mental models of the self and others seem to overlap. Along these lines, social relationships also serve as a source of learning and development, in some cases beyond standard friendships or loving relationships and through a lineage of mentors and their apprentices, enhancing both individual well-being and accomplishment (Peterson, 2006).

People also inherently engage in capitalization, the psychological term coined to represent the sharing of positive results with others (Langston, 1994; Gable & Gosnell, 2011), potentially playing a role in the evidence for happiness being contagious (Fowler & Christakis, 2008). When things are not going well, and we experience negative or stressful events, we often rely on our social support network, turning to others for comfort and advice (Gable, Gonzaga, & Strachman 2006). But, what about when we get good news and experience positive emotions? Research suggests that positive events occur more than three times as often as negative events (Gable & Haidt, 2005), though we may not reflect on them as much due to our inherent negativity bias. Nonetheless, it is estimated that between 60-80% of the time, people share the best thing that happened to them in a given day, typically relating to the following domains: social relationships, school or work, and health and body (Gable & Haidt, 2005). Importantly, capitalizing is associated with increases in well-being, life satisfaction and positive affect above and beyond the positive events themselves (Gable & Gonzaga, 2006). However, this positive effect is conditional, dependent on how the recipient of the positive news responds. Specifically, evidence suggests that the benefits of positive news are generated only from when the recipient responds in a supportive manner (Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004).

When dealing with less positive situations, research suggests there may be no better coping mechanism in times of stress and trauma than confiding in a friend or loved one (Lyubomrisky, 2017). Social support can come in various forms, including emotional (e.g., listening and reassuring), physical (e.g., driving to the hospital or picking up medicine), and informational (e.g. sharing advice). Perhaps it’s not surprising to find out that studies routinely find positive social relationships are among the best predictors of life satisfaction and longevity, ultimately accounting for more than other domains of human activity (Gable, 2018).

While there are many ways to cultivate close social relationships, kindness and compassion have been shown to play a critical role (Lyubomirsky, 2007). It is intuitive that our acts of kindness and compassion improve our relationships and the well-being of the people we care about. In recent research, positive psychology contributed additional understanding to this interaction, demonstrating that acts of compassion also improve the individual well-being of the provider (Lyubomirsky, 2007). Of course, this notion in of itself is not new or original.

Consider the Dalai Lama’s words: “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Or similarly, the words of Archbishop Tutu: “I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others. It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate.” (Lama, Tutu, & Abrams, 2016)

But what does science tell us about how this works? It turns out there are lots of reasons (Lyubomirsky, 2007). To highlight a few, evidence suggests that being kind and generous can: 1) lead you to perceive others more positively; 2) foster a heightened sense of interdependence within your community; 3) relieve guilt, distress, and discomfort over others’ suffering; 4) encourage a sense of appreciate for your own good fortune; 5) shift your focus away from yourself and onto others; 6) improve your perception of yourself and provide a sense of meaning; and 7) lead other people to like and appreciate you.

Clearly, the more we can do to develop and nurture our close social relationships, the better we and others will be, both physically and psychologically. Fortunately, positive psychology has developed a few empirically backed ways to do this, both in terms of friendships and romantic partners. Here are just three examples of positive interventions to help in this domain.

  1. Random Acts of Kindness: On one day of the coming week, perform five acts of kindness (note: it’s important that all acts of kindness are performed on one day). The acts can be big or small and can be for the same person or five different people. In addition to improving the lives of others, research demonstrates that participants who performed these random acts of kindness on a given day for six weeks experienced a significant increase in well-being (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
  2. Active Constructive Responding: In the next opportunity you get with a loved one, try to be a supportive responder. Supportive responses are best defined through the concept of Active Constructive Responding (ACR), part of a response model that proposes four distinct types of responding: “active-constructive (e.g., enthusiastic support), passive-constructive (e.g., quiet, understated support), active-destructive (e.g., demeaning the event), and passive-destructive responses (e.g., ignoring the event)” (Gable & Gonzaga, 2006, p. 905). Research suggests that only active-constructive responses, those that are enthusiastic, caring, and supportive, are positively associated with well-being for the person sharing the news (Gable et al., 2004).
  3. The gift of time. In an upcoming week, schedule to meet up with three people that you care about, above and beyond your normally planned activities. When we’re busy, and let’s face it we’re always busy, it is easy to sacrifice quality time with others in lieu of other tasks. While sometimes time consuming, taking the time to connect with others and nurture positive relationships is a fundamental aspect of well-being. People who did this activity showed improved well-being even one month later, and the results lasted longer for those that continue to give gifts of time (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2013).

So… what are you waiting for?

References

Beckes, L., & Coan, J. A. (2011). Social baseline theory: The role of social proximity in emotion and economy of action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass5(12), 976–988.

Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal337, a2338.

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology87(2), 228.

Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?. Review of general psychology9(2), 103.

Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of personality and social psychology91(5), 904.

Gable, S. G. & Gosnell, C. L. (2011). The positive side of close relationships. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward, 265–279. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Wyss, T. (2013). Strength-based positive interventions: Further evidence for their potential in enhancing well-being and alleviating depression. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(4), 1241.

Gable, L. (2018). Satisfying and Meaningful Close Relationships. In Forgas, J. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (Eds.). The Social Psychology of Living Well. Routledge

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lama, D., Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. (2016). The Book of Joy. New York, NY: Random House.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K., & Schkade, D. (2005) Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology9(2), 111–131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A practical guide to getting the life you want. London: Piatkus.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Righting the Ship: Redesigning Technology to Actually Improve Our Lives

Technology is amazing. In the last few years alone, we have seen new forms of technology detect and cure diseases, level the information playing field around the world, and help solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. Objectively speaking, the world is seeing some incredible improvements, and technology is often seen as a big driving force (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012). But it’s not all good. At a time when we’re more connected than ever before, entire countries are declaring social isolation epidemics (Hafner, 2016). In America, when asked, “how many people do you have to discuss important issues with,” the most popular answer is zero (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). And teenagers are living through alarmingly increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicides (American College Health Association, 2016; Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2017). How can this be?

It turns out, there is a pretty stark difference between objective and subjective views of the world. As technology plays a significant role in objectively improving the world, some forms of technology seem to have the opposite effect on our subjective views, how we feel about the world. Fortunately, research is catching up and we’re now starting to wake up to the scientifically evidenced downsides of some of the latest technology we’ve created in the past couple decades, namely smartphones and social media. And understanding the problem is the first step in figuring out how to re-design the technology to actually improve our subjective lives. It may be early days, with research just starting to make headway, but at the rate technology is moving, every day counts. To put it in perspective, Facebook, founded in 2004, has 1.45 billion people using the platform every day (Statista, 2018). Snapchat, founded in 2011, has 191 million people using the platform every day (Statista, 2018). This is incredible scale, and incredibly quickly. We’re at a time when the new technology we create can reach millions of people within just a few days, making the impact, whether positive or negative, more important than ever before.

It’s time to leverage what we know about the effects of technology to iterate for a more positive subjective world. What could this look like in a few years? Let’s consider three key decision points we face on a daily basis: 1) what apps to download and prioritize, 2) what to do right when you wake up, 3) how to spend your day.

1) What apps to download and prioritize? Put another way, this is asking what new technology you want to be accessible to at the touch of a few taps? Today, the app stores are ordered primarily by volume and frequency of app downloads. This isn’t inherently a bad way to organize a list of apps; it helps people easily identify and download the most popular apps at any given time. But what if there’s a better way to promote technology than a popularity contest? What if you could see a ranking of apps based on how much people enjoy using them, how much it positively impacts their lives, or how much they value their time spent on the apps? It turns out that many of the most popular apps in the app stores are also the most addicting and are reported by its own users to result in unhappiness (Center for Humane Technology, 2018). If you want to use technology to aid you in living a subjectively positive life, selecting apps based on utility, value, and enjoyment would naturally be a good place to start. The app stores could rank apps accordingly, making it that much easier to shape our phones, and hence lives, in a positive light. Perhaps this would simultaneously encourage tech companies to consider their impact on subjective well-being a little bit more, re-aligning technology incentives with human values.

2) What to do right when you wake up? Research shows that we’re now more likely to think about our phone in the morning than our significant others (Consumer Mobility Report, 2015). This is pretty disturbing. I don’t want to live in a world where technology comes first, I want to live in a world where technology helps me cultivate stronger human connection. It is relatively easy for me to explain the type of mornings I would like to have: wake up after a good night’s sleep, meditate, go for a run, shower, write in my journal, have breakfast, and then make my way into the office to start the workday. It’s also relatively easy for me to explain the type of mornings I often have: wake up, check my texts and emails, and scramble into the office already preoccupied. What if our phones encouraged us to have the mornings we want, and maybe need, as opposed to how they operate today? We could program our phones to serve up a meditation app first thing after we wake up, removing the opportunity to decide to skip that morning. We could hide email and social apps for the first hour after we wake up, unless something truly urgent came through. We could lock certain apps until we’ve hit a certain mileage or step count. Or maybe as a simpler first step, we could monitor our morning consumption patterns and note how we feel each day, better understanding how the decisions influence our ability to start the day on the right foot.

3) How to spend your day? It sometimes feels like we can make it through entire days, even weeks, on autopilot. Many of the apps we use today originated to help us live more productive, enjoyable, and connected lives. However, we’ve somehow entered a world in which these same tech companies are now more focused on competing for our finite attention to grow their slice of the pie and to generate more advertising revenue. What if, instead of trying to maximize our attention, our phones helped us live more deliberate, positively oriented lives? We could program daily time limits for certain apps, limiting the risk of mindless scrolling and over-usage. We could use notifications to encourage us to stay active, connect with friends, or get off our phones, as opposed to draw us in to one of the many addicting apps or social apps we have. We could hide or bucket less positive apps, surfacing instead apps shown to be more useful and happy-inducing, like Skype, Google Maps, and Pandora (Center for Humane Technology, 2018). We could create physical spaces that automatically turn our phone into sleep mode, ensuring we truly focus on real social connection and engagement.

The first step to fixing our current technology problem is admitting we have a problem. We now know that the technology we’re creating, that billions of people are using every day, is often contributing to a subjectively worse off world (McCarthy et al., 2018). Better understanding the negative effects from over-usage, our own consumption patterns, and the psychological tricks used to compete for our attention is a critical first step to righting the ship. This knowledge can then be leveraged to drive change at scale. And that is exactly what has been happening over the last couple years. In the last few months, both Google and Apple launched digital well-being initiatives to help create more informed consumption and improved relationships with devices.

Here are some of the key changes made by Google and Apple, reflecting the importance of re-designing technology to actually improve our lives:

  • Consumption patterns: the ability to see how much time we spend on our phones, what apps we spend the most time in, and how many notifications we get.
  • Time consciousness: the ability to turn on reminders to take a break in certain apps (e.g. after watching too much YouTube) and set time limits for certain apps.
  • Reclaiming our lives: the ability to snooze alerts, hide notifications, and personalize updates to help us more easily disconnect.

These changes are critical steps in the right direction, reflecting many concepts proposed by the Center for Humane Technology, an organization focused entirely on realigning technology with humanity’s best interests. Having a respected organization dedicated to righting the ship, an increase in academic research, and leading technology companies listening and iterating their products accordingly are all signs of moving in the right direction and improving our subjective lives. In an upcoming post, I will delve into how we can design new technology to improve well-being from the get go. Stay tuned!

 

References

American College Health Association. (2016). American college health association-national college health assessment: Undergraduate students reference group executive summary fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Center for Humane Technology. (2018). What’s the difference between apps we cherish vs. regret? Retrieved from: http://humanetech.com/app-ratings/

Consumer Mobility Report. (2015). Bank of America. Retrieved from:https://promo.bankofamerica.com/mobilityreport/assets/images/2015-Trends-in-Consumer-Mobility-Report_FINAL.pdf

Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Hafner, K. (2016, Sep 6). Researchers confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html

McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., Sood, A., Limburg, P. J., Goodin, T., Malleret, T. (2018). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. In Global Wellness Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2018/4/10/new-report-wellness-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American sociological review71(3), 353–375.

Statista (2018). Number of daily active Facebook users worldwide as of 1st quarter 2018 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/545967/snapchat-app-dau/

Statista. (2018). Number of daily active Snapchat users from 1st quarter 2014 to 1st quarter 2018 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/346167/facebook-global-dau/

Twenge, M., Joiner, T., Rogers, M., & Martin, G. (2017, Nov 14). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.

Your Child on Smartphone

“If I had to tell you what invention I don’t like I would say that I don’t like the phone. I don’t like the phone because my parent[s] are on their phone every day. A phone is sometimes a really bad [habit]. I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one. That is [an] invention that I don’t like” (Torres, 2018).

This is the response from a 2nd grader when asked to write about an invention they don’t like. We have somehow let smartphones shift from serving as a useful appliance, designed to improve our lives, to something more along the lines of an unhealthy addiction.

The rate of technology adoption is increasing at a faster rate than ever before (Molla, 2018). It’s almost inconceivable to think Apple released the first iPhone a touch over 10 years ago and today 95% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 in the US report having a smartphone or access to one (Anderson & JingJing, 2018). And of course, their connectivity isn’t passive: 45% of US teenagers report being online on a “near-constant basis.” This likely won’t be news to many parents, 94% of which report taking at least one action to manage their child’s technology usage (Bethune & Lewan, 2017). On top of that, around 50% of parents say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle, feel like their child is attached to their devices, and feel disconnected from their families even when they are together as a result of technology.

Born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to have their entire lives defined by hyper connectivity, spending significantly more time on new media screen activities and less time on non-screen activities than any previous generation. Unfortunately, studies show that teenagers who spend more time on screens are much more likely to report mental health issues compared to their less device dependent counterparts (Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2017). The general consensus in the science community is this uptick in on screen activities likely accounts for at least some of the corresponding increases in depression and suicide. While mental illness can have many sources, the irrefutable correlation between increased screen time and feelings of loneliness, fear of missing out and upward social comparisons, and cyber bulling — especially pronounced for teenage girls — is extremely worrisome (Twenge, 2017). New research on adolescents with internet addition suggests these effects on depression and suicide rates may be the result of actual chemical imbalances in the brain stemming from this shift in lifestyle (Cohut, 2017). Within the study, participants with more severe internet and smartphone addiction had more problems not only with depression, but also with stress, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and sleeplessness.

Mental health is clearly an issue, but what happens to social relationships when an entire generation grows up without knowing what a disconnected life looks like? How do they learn to have difficult conversations? To read the body language associated with words? To develop love and empathy for others? These are the kinds of questions researchers have started to investigate, and the early signs are worrisome. We’ve seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students in the past 20 years, most of it within the past 10 years (Turkle, 2016). It’s telling that we’ve introduced the term “phubbing” into our lexicon to describe the habit of snubbing someone in favor of a mobile phone (Ducharme, 2018). Unfortunately, as “phubbing” becomes commonplace, research shows that it actually threatens our fundamental needs of belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control. Even just the presence of a phone on the table during a conversation has been shown to have a negative impact on social relationships, making people feel less connected to each other (Ducharme, 2018). This is clearly an issue, but so is the fact that children aren’t even getting together (in real life, anyways) in the first place. The number of teenagers who hang out with their friends on a nearly daily basis has dropped by more than 40% since the year 2000 (Twenge, 2017). And now we know, even when they do get together, they often experience less meaningful interactions than previous generations.

With uninterrupted access to social media, email, texting, and online games, kids are also growing up with infinite streams of potential activity, resulting in frequent content switching and multi-tasking. And once again, research shines a gloomy light on the situation. While it may seem efficient, frequent multi-tasking has been associated with depression, anxiety, and difficulty reading human emotions (Turkle, 2016). Although we believe ourselves adept at multi-tasking, research tells us it takes 25 minutes on average for us to return to a task after an interruption (Sullivan & Thompson, 2013). This means that every quick check of the phone isn’t just a quick break, but may be costing us hours of deep concentration every day. Not a great realization considering kids now pick up their phones an average of 150 times a day (Brandon, 2017). This also gives members of iGen the ability to indefinitely bypass the uncomfortable construct previously known as boredom. Picking up their phones during lull periods may be enjoyable, or even second nature at this point, but it mitigates the positive effects stemming from boredom, like self-reflection, creativity and innovation (Turkle, 2016).

Technology creation and adoption is moving faster than ever before in history, making it difficult for academic research to keep up. But early results bear worrisome news. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that we’re moving in the wrong direction. There are now a wide-array of issues our children (and ourselves) have to deal with when it comes to smartphones, and it’s getting harder and harder to switch off. So, what should we do about it? I don’t believe the answer is the removal of smartphones or somehow halting our rapid advancement of technology. This is the world we live in, and in many ways we’re extremely fortunate for it. Aspects of technology advancement have been truly positive, helping us detect and cure diseases, level the information playing field, and solve massive human problems. But, clearly it’s not all good, and we need to be more informed of the negative so we can right the ship. We need to better understand the harmful effects of over-usage, our own consumption patterns, and the psychological tricks tech companies are using to suck us in. We can then use this knowledge to help our children improve their relationship with their devices, apply pressure to tech companies to better understand and iterate on their products, and create new technology designed to help our children flourish.

More on this coming soon…

References

Anderson, M. & JingJing, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018

Bethune, S. & Lewan, E. (2017, Feb 23). APA’s Survey Finds Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress for Most Americans. APA. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/02/checking-devices.aspx

Brandon, J. (2017, Apr 17). The Surprising Reason Millennials Check Their Phones 150 Times a Day. Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.inc.com/john-brandon/science-says-this-is-the-reason-millennials-check-their-phones-150-times-per-day.html

Cohut, M. (2017, Dec 17). Yes, smartphone addiction does harm your teen’s mental health. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320183.php

Ducharme, J. (2018, Mar 29). ‘Phubbing’ Is Hurting Your Relationships. Here’s What It Is. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5216853/what-is-phubbing/

Molla, R. (2018, May 30). Mary Meeker’s 2018 internet trends report: All the slides, plus analysis. Recode. Retrieved from: https://www.recode.net/2018/5/30/17385116/mary-meeker-slides-internet-trends-code-conference-2018

Sullivan, B. & Thompson, H. (2013, May 5). Brain, Interrupted. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/opinion/sunday/a-focus-on-distraction.html

Torres, K. (2018). Parents Are Reacting To A Letter Written By A Second Grader Who Wishes Cell Phones Weren’t Invented. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/kristatorres/a-second-grader-wrote-a-letter-saying-i-hate-my-moms-phone

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin.

Twenge, M., Joiner, T., Rogers, M., & Martin, G. (2017, Nov 14). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.

Twenge, M. (2017, Sep). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

What is Positive Psychology and Why Does it Matter?

The world is objectively getting better. Over the past 40 years alone, the percentage of people in absolute poverty, living on less than $1.25 per day, has decreased from over 50% of the population to around 15% (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012). 30 years ago, 12 million kids were dying every year, but thanks to vaccines and work in public health, that number is down to around 5 million today (Garfield, 2018). We’ve eradicated entire diseases – cases of Guinea worm, a parasite that affected more than 3 million people 30 years ago, is down to mere thousands thanks to advancements in medical technology. Infant mortality is down. Crime rates are down. Child labor is down. All incredible things, and yet humanity isn’t flourishing. How can that be?

In recent years, psychologists have come to realize the absence of illness alone does not equate a life of well-being and flourishing. The field of psychology has historically focused on addressing problems in clinical populations, resulting in significant advancements in our ability to better understand life altering ailments, like depression and anxiety. On the other hand, the field contributed much less to advance our understanding of how to cultivate well-being and build lives full of positive emotion, meaning, and achievement. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) put it, “the exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human being lacking the positive features that make life worth living.” In 1998, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association, and the direction of psychological research took a turn northward. The central theme of Seligman’s presidential term? Positive psychology. In this new era of psychology, the absence of illness was not going to be the end of the story. Psychology was going to begin researching and understanding what it means to flourish and how to create more well-being. In the year of the election, 20 years ago, there were 53 publications on Google Scholar that mentioned ‘positive psychology’ and just over 1,000 that mentioned ‘subjective well-being.’ In the year 2017, the same searches on Google Scholar reveal over 16,000 and 20,000 publications related to each topic respectively. The era of positive psychology has officially begun.

Although sometimes colloquially referred to as the study of happiness, the psychology community refers to positive psychology as the scientific study of well-being. It is generally recognized today that happiness is an inadequate term to define the “good life,” in part due to its lack of a clear definition (a requirement for effective research) and its close, narrow association with positive emotion and pleasure. The construct of well-being has existed throughout history with ever-changing definitions, and there are still competing theories today on the proper definition. In the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher Aristippus supported the notion of hedonic happiness, suggesting the goal of life was to experience the maximum amount of pleasure (Ryan & Deci, 2001). This hedonic view, equating well-being with pleasure, has a long history and clearly still has some influence today. Aristotle considered hedonic happiness to be an unpolished and crude outlook on life, instead referring to happiness as Eudaimonia, a term that goes beyond pleasure and is centered on the process of living well (Melchert, 2002). Today, Seligman (2011) defines well-being using the PERMA model, suggesting a multi-pronged approach of well-being that encompasses Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Achievement (A). Also a strong proponent of the multi-dimensionality of well-being, Diener (1984) introduced the concept of subjective well-being, defined as people’s overall evaluations of their lives and their positive and negative emotional experiences.

Regardless of the precise definition used, the value of scientifically studying well-being is largely tied to its ability to actually drive improved well-being and flourishing in the world. Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) suggest a person’s happiness level is determined by three factors: a genetically based happiness set point (roughly 50%), life circumstances that affect happiness (roughly 10%), and intentional activities and practices (roughly 40%). While eating well, physical activity, and getting enough sleep are naturally important components of human flourishing, positive psychologists have discovered additional, simple mechanisms to measurably improve well-being. These mechanisms are called positive interventions: evidence-based, intentional acts designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing (J. Pawelski, personal communication, October 7). And research suggests they really work. A comprehensive meta-analysis of 51 positive interventions conducted by Lyubomirsky (2009) demonstrated significant well-being enhancement (r = 0.29) and decreased depressive symptoms (r = 0.31) from the application of positive interventions.

To better understand positive interventions, it’s valuable to break down its definition into the three defining components: 1) evidence-based, 2) intentional, and 3) designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. First, positive interventions are evidence-based. There are many ways to increase well-being, and what works for one person might not work for the next. Just because Bob or Amy find something that increases their well-being, does not by default make it a recognized positive intervention. To qualify, the positive intervention must be capable of having its impact measured and be shown to produce an improvement in at least one facet of well-being. This is not to say that non-measured activities are not worthwhile, just that they do not officially qulaify as positive interventions. 2) Positive interventions are intentional. To be counted as a positive intervention, the activity must be completed with internal agency. Although experiencing a sunny day may lead to empirically improved well-being, sunny days themelves do not qualify as a positive intervention. 3) Positive interventions are designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. There are many important psychological interventions that are not designed specifically to increase well-being; these interventions tend to focus on lessening the negative. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is designed to treat problems by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. While this can drive positive impact on well-being, it is primarily designed to decrease the negative as opposed to specifically grow a positive element of human flourishing.

Fortunately, the positive psychology community has methodologically developed many positive interventions to cultivate well-being. In the Three Good Things intervention, participants are asked to write down three things that went well and why every night for two weeks, improving well-being by shifting focus to the positive and fostering a mindset of gratitude (Seligman, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In the Best Possible Selves intervention, participants are asked to write about what their ideal future would look like, improving well-being through increased optimism and positive emotion (Peters, Flink, Boersma, Linton, 2010). Positive interventions also have the capacity to improve marital quality, a major contributor to well-being and physical health (Finkel, Slotter, Luchies, Walton, & Gross, 2013). A 21-minute reappraisal writing intervention for couples, in which participants think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party, protected the participants against declines in marital quality over time. There are now a wide-array of positive interventions designed to foster various dimensions of well-being, ranging from gratitude and positive emotion to resilience and optimism to love and transcendence (Fredrickson, 2009).

This sound great, but why should we care? If you ask a group of people what they want most in life, a common response is some version of “happiness.” Well-being in of itself is a goal many of us have for ourselves and those around us. But evidence suggests that well-being can also result in a variety of additional beneficial outcomes. First and foremost, people with higher well-being tend to be healthier and live longer on average (Diener et al., 2017). High well-being has also been shown to improve social relationships, result in more pro-social behavior, and improve job productivity and earning potential (Diener et al., 2017). Barbara Frederickson’s (2009) broaden-and-build theory posits that positive emotion alone broadens people’s ideas about possible actions they can take, while also helping people discover and build new skills to help them thrive.

To keep it simple, the more well-being we cultivate, the better our lives and the lives of those around us can be. Positive psychology is dedicated to systematically understanding, cultivating, and spreading well-being throughout world, ultimately creating a world in which we truly flourish.

 

References

Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological bulletin95(3), 542.

Diener, E., Heintzelman, S. J., Kushlev, K., Tay, L., Wirtz, D., Lutes, L. D., & Oishi, S. (2017). Findings all psychologists should know from the new science on subjective well-being. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 58, 87-104.

Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science24(8), 1595-1601.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York, NY: Crown.

Garfield, L. (2018, Feb 14). Bill Gates says the world is objectively getting better – in spite of Trump’s ‘America First’ policies. Business Insider. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-world-is-getting-better-despite-trump-2018-2

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological bulletin131(6), 803.

Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A  historical introduction to philosophy4, 186-198.

Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? The Journal of Positive Psychology5(3), 204-211.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141-156.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychology, 55, 5-14.

Seligman, M., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well‐being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice‐friendly meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 467-487.

Technology and Loneliness: Designing for Real Social Connection

The power of technology should be harnessed to help humans flourish, not to hide behind screens and bring about record levels of loneliness. It’s time to get deliberate about the technology we create and consume. According to research, our lives depend on it.

In the last ten years, smartphones, social media, and online media have become ever-present, changing the way we interact with the world and each other. The average American now spends more than 10 hours a day consuming media, with smartphone usage higher than ever before (Howard, 2016). Even children under the age of eight spend more than two hours every day engaged in online media, with mobile device representing about a third of total screen time (Rideout, 2017). How we spend our finite time in a given day deserves deliberate reflection – spending more time in front of screens definitionally means we’re spending less time elsewhere.

How does this impact our social relationships, and does it matter? The wide-array of well-being benefits derived from social connection has been well documented in psychology. At the highest level, close social relationships are strongly associated with health and well-being, while isolation is associated with an increased likelihood of mortality (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). To put the physical risk of loneliness in perspective, research suggests that social isolation has comparable effects on mortality rates to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). To put it simply, research shows us what we already know: humans have an innate need for love and connection (Haidt, 2006). So yes, it matters.

When comparing those who report being lonelier to those who are less lonely, clear trends begin to emerge (Cigna, 2018). Unsurprisingly, lonelier people are much less likely to have frequent in-person interactions, dealing with inadequate social skills and relationship statuses. According to Sherry Turkle (2016) in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, those who use social media have the most difficulty reading human emotions, including their own. Conversely, real-life conversations lead to greater self-esteem and improved ability to deal with others. Additional research supports this idea, demonstrating that online life is associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection. As technology and media companies get better at commandeering peoples’ finite attention, typically in line with internal goals to increase time spent on site and advertising revenue, real life social connections are taking a hit. The result? A combination of diminishing well-being, declining capacity for empathy and reflection, and deteriorating social connection (Turkle, 2016).

But what about technology designed to improve well-being? I’m not talking about unique, deliberate approaches to use Facebook in ways that result in increased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015), but technology intentionally designed to increase well-being. There are a few companies out there paving the way, including Headspace (teaching how to mediate and live mindfully), Happify (using evidence-based solutions to improve well-being), DIY (helping kids develop new skills), and Duolingo (using science-based strategies to teach new languages). Aren’t these the kinds of sites we should be dedicating our finite time to?

One company has decided to tackle the importance of social connection head on, using technology to get people off technology. Meetup, a platform designed to help people discover local gatherings (Meetups), encourages people to do the things they love with others. Unlike many recent technology products centered on online connection behind a screen, Meetup is focused exclusively on creating meaningful connections in real life. And it seems to be succeeding, creating a million hours of people connecting in real life every month. With smartphone dependence and social isolation on the rise, the importance of encouraging and facilitating real social connection is more important than ever before. The power of technology should be harnessed to help humans flourish, not to hide behind screens and bring about record levels of loneliness. It’s time to get deliberate about the technology we create and consume. According to research, our lives depend on it.

 

References

Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf

Gable, S. G. & Gosnell, C. L. (2011). The positive side of close relationships. In K. M. Sheldon, B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward,265-279. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

Howard, J. (2016, Jul 29). Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/americans-  screen-time-nielsen/index.html

Rideout, V. (2017). The Common Sense census: Media use by kids age zero to eight. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 263-283.

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin.

Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., . . . Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.

Technology: Good or Bad?

Introduction

The first iPhone was released by Apple in June 2007. Just over 10 years later, there are more than 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world (eMarketer report, 2017) and 94% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2018). This rapid development of technology has significantly altered the way we live our lives. With smartphones, we are more connected than ever before. We can look up information and learn new skills without leaving the house. We can communicate around the world with immediacy, spreading messages and ideas faster than ever before. And beyond smartphone development, we have seen significant technological improvements in health care, energy consumption, robotics, virtual reality, business, and transportation.

The Unintended Consequences of Technology

However, these wide-ranging benefits of technology come at a cost. The Global Wellness Institute (2018) has found substantial evidence supporting adverse effects of technology on a) social relationships and loneliness; b) sleep; c) inactivity, obesity and physiological health; d) mental wellness; e) distraction and safety; and f) productivity. Although all important factors of well-being, this post will focus specifically on the impact of technology on social relationships and loneliness. The influx of smartphone usage and persistent connectivity has rapidly altered the way people interact with each other and form relationships. Throughout this change, we are learning that not all connection is created equal, and the result of losing substantive connections for superficial ones can be devastating. Countries around the world are declaring epidemics of loneliness as people struggle to create meaningful connections (Hafner, 2016).

While technology itself is neither good or bad, the way we use technology can have significantly positive or negative effects on our well-being.

Consider for a moment our ability to connect with others through technology. At the touch of a button, we can spend 20 minutes on Apple FaceTime or Google Hangouts with family members around the world to share positive life updates over video chat. Similarly, we can spend hours scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds, idly monitoring the curated online lives of our extended network. While both activities include technology and forms of social connection, they can have drastically different results on our lives – the latter being associated with increased envy and decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).

Research is starting to catch up to the rapid development of technology and the results are concerning. Young adults with high social media usage tend to experience more perceived social isolation than their counterparts with lower social media usage (Primack et al., 2017). This is a problem. Social isolation, both perceived and actual, is associated with increased risk of early mortality, even more so than other known risk factors, including obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). Additionally, Cheng & Li (2014) report that global internet addition, defined as excessive use to the extent that time spent on devices impacts relationships, work, daily activities, and physical and mental health, has reached a global prevalence estimate of 6%. Unsurprisingly, they found that internet addiction is inversely associated with quality of life, as reflected by both subjective (life satisfaction) and objective (quality of environmental conditions) indicators. As internet continues to be more ingrained in our lives, through smartphones or otherwise, it would not be surprising to see the rate of internet addiction, and the associated negative outcomes, to continue to increase over time.

Like other addictions, however, fault does not reside exclusively with the individual. Technology companies have seemingly neglected their impact on well-being when designing and launching new products. In fact, their incentives are often completely misaligned with well-being. Consider Facebook, a company that makes more than 98% of its revenue through advertising (Facebook, 2018). Facebook is responsible to its shareholders to steadily increase revenue, and steadily increasing advertising revenue equates with finding ways to get people to spend more and more time on their platform (to see more ads). This does not bode well for human flourishing based on the known association between social media usage and decreased well-being (Primack et al., 2017). Of course, it’s not just Facebook – Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube all operate under the same business models and are equally innovating to capture more of people’s time.

To understand how these leading technology decision makers think, consider the sentiment expressed by Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, stating that one of Netflix’s biggest competitors is sleep itself (Snider, 2017).

This poses a serious threat to our well-being, especially considering the significant reach of these leading technology companies in today’s connected world. Once again, it becomes important to remind ourselves that technology itself is neither good or bad; rather, it’s how we design and consume technology that influences our well-being and ability to flourish.

Righting the Ship: Designing for Well-Being

Let’s revisit the example of Facebook and its impact on well-being. As highlighted above, Facebook is designed to maximize time on site and advertising revenue. Accordingly, for years Facebook has been developing mechanisms to draw their customers in for hours on end, resulting in the enticing world of endless news feed scrolling we often find ourselves in today. It’s exactly this type of passive Facebook usage that leads to decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015). On the other hand, evidence suggests that actively interacting with others on Facebook, i.e. through direct messaging and reminiscing about past interactions, is actually linked to improvements in well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).

In other words, Facebook itself is neither inherently good or bad, but how one uses it can make all the difference. If we can agree that well-being should be the primary objective of technology, and align incentives accordingly (easier said than done), we can begin designing technology products with a deliberate focus on increasing well- being.

Encouragingly, in Facebook’s most recent investor report (2018), founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, noted “we are taking a broader view of our responsibility and investing to make sure our services are used for good.”

Will this actually translate into Facebook updating their product and design to encourage more active usage, even if it comes at the cost of less passive usage and advertising revenue? Only time will tell…

 

 

References

Cheng, C., & Li, A. Y. L. (2014). Internet addiction prevalence and quality of (real) life: a meta-analysis of 31 nations across seven world regions. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking17(12), 755-760.

Facebook Reports First Quarter 2018 Results. (2018, Apr 25). PRNewswire. Retrieved from: https://investor.fb.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2018/Facebook-Reports-First-Quarter-2018-Results/default.aspx

Hafner, K. (2016, Sep 6). Researchers confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 227-237.

McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., Sood, A., Limburg, P. J., Goodin, T., Malleret, T. (2018). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. In Global Wellness Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2018/4/10/new-report-wellness-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone

Mobile Fact Sheet. (2018, Feb 5). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/

Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., yi Lin, L., Rosen, D., … & Miller, E (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US. American journal of preventive medicine53(1), 1-8.

Snider, M. (2017, Apr 18). Netflix’s biggest competition? Sleep, CEO says. USA Today Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/04/18/netflixs-biggest-competition-sleep-ceo-says/100585788/

Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., . . . Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.

Worldwide Internet and Mobile Users: eMarketer’s Updated Estimates and Forecast for 2017– 2021 (2017, Dec 1.) In eMarketer Report. Retrieved from: https://www.emarketer.com/Report/Worldwide-Internet-Mobile-Users-eMarketers Updated-Estimates-Forecast-20172021/2002147

Activity: Commitment Devices

Title: Commitment Devices

Activity: Use a commitment device to help achieve an important, difficult goal.

Background: A commitment device is a tool set in place by individuals in the present to help their future selves achieve goals that otherwise would be difficult to accomplish. When talking about achieving goals, in economics we often refer to Time Inconsistency, a concept explaining how our future selves do not always agree with or act in accordance with our current self beliefs. More specifically, our current selves tends to value long-term benefits, while our future selves are more easily influenced by our immediate surroundings and short-term cravings. This often results in us failing to successfully execute against our goals, no matter how excited or confident we were in setting them up. And that’s the beauty of commitment devices — a tool our current self can leverage to ensure maximum chance of success when it’s time for our future self to execute against our plans.

For example, let’s say you decide it’s time to start going to the gym regularly again (go current self!). You look at your calendar and choose to go every Tuesday and Thursday after work. It’s a good plan that fits in perfectly with your schedule. Then Tuesday comes along and you find yourself extra busy at work. You need to stay late to finish a project and are exhausted afterwards, so you decide to skip that day (classic future self move). It’s OK, you will make up for it on Thursday (great idea, new current self). But on Thursday you get a call from your friends who want to try that new restaurant around the corner for dinner. You haven’t seen your friends in a while and decide that would be more fun than a day at the gym (come on, future self!). Not to worry though, you commit to making up for it over the weekend (hmm getting harder and harder to trust current self).

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there before. If it’s not skipping a gym session, it’s failing to eat a healthy meal, getting distracted while trying to finish a project, going out instead of saving money, or hitting snooze instead of waking up early. This is why it’s critical to understand this economic concept and to help your current self to put safeguards in place to avoid future self slip ups.

There are many examples of commitment device strategies. Some common examples include: buying a gym membership, cutting up credit cards, buying small packets of snacks and not keeping alcohol or dessert in the house. For this month’s activity, I focused on two specific types of commitment devices:

  1. Long term contract: I decided to tackle my long term goal of getting back into learning Spanish — something I’d been wanting to do for some time, but never seemed to fit into my schedule. I have tried and have started the process a few times, jumping into studying Spanish for a few days in a row only to find myself stopping as soon as it became cumbersome. This time around, to leverage the concept of commitment devices, I signed up for a Spanish class that meets weekly, paying upfront for 10 weeks of classes and locking myself into the classes and book work for each one.
  2. Social accountability: I also had a friend leverage social accountability, another form of a commitment device, to accomplish two goals incredibly important to him: a) eating healthier and b) exercising five times a week. Instead of simply willing himself to accomplish this goal every day (an approach that often leads to failure), he created a spreadsheet to track his progress which he shared on a daily basis with a mutual friend. This friend would check the spreadsheet each day and hold him accountable for his goals, reaching out if he missed a day to understand why.

Results: The results of leveraging commitment devices were successful in both cases. After months of trying and failing to get back into Spanish, knowing I had prepaid for 10 Spanish classes finally encouraged the continuous studying and learning I had been wanting throughout the month. Meanwhile, my friend, who had failed at sticking to these two exact goals for some time, had the most successful month in terms of eating well and exercising he’s ever had. By acknowledging the power of time inconsistency, we were both able to put safeguards in place to help our future selves stick to our goals.

Next Steps: It’s exciting to see the power of commitment devices come to life — I plan to continue to explore various commitment devices to accomplish other, difficult to achieve goals. I’ve already started buying less junk food and more vegetables for the house when grocery shopping so that my future self is more likely to eat healthy and avoid sweets (sorry future self – love, current self).

Research: 

“Save Me From Myself.” Audio blog post. Freakonomics Radio. N.p., 26 Dec. 2013.

Bryan, Gharad, Dean Karlan, and Scott Nelson. “Commitment Devices.” Annual Review of Economics 2.1 (2010): 671-98. Web.

“Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices.” Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices – Wikibooks, Open Books for an Open World. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.