Does Digitization Make Us Happy (And Healthier)?

19 April 2021
In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries happy in the previous edition of the report were also happy in 2020. Changes in the ranking are very slight. According to the report, happiness is determined mainly by economic prosperity, the level of trust in government institutions, interpersonal relations, life expectancy, and the feeling of freedom. And even though we did not find technology among them, it is a technology that influences economic prosperity, the quality of social contacts, and sometimes life expectancy.

Technology is like air—we don’t recognize its existence and influence

Technological progress is the driver of social welfare. Major economic powers such as China, the USA, Japan, and Finland, have based their advantage on innovations. In this case, the correlation is beyond doubt: countries with the highest GDP per capita are the leaders in the happiness ranking. Welfare gives the freedom and security—such important factors of well-being—while technology is accelerating them. However, in The Progress Paradox, the economist Gregg Easterbrook claims that even though we do owe a significant improvement in almost all aspects of life in the last century to technological progress, people feel less happy than previous generations. Many scientific papers present a simple antithesis: we get used to new technologies so quickly that we overlook their impact on our everyday life. Is owning a smartphone a measure of our life satisfaction? Not really, but ten years ago, things were different. Technology is like a double-edged sword. Using social media is a risk factor for mental health. However, during the pandemic, social media enable us to stay in touch with family and friends, get mental support, and feel that we belong to a larger community. Again at this point, the dilemma “what was first – technology or happiness” comes back. Are people who use Instagram happier thanks to technology, or do they use Instagram precisely because they are happier in life, perhaps due to their extrovert behaviour, which predisposes them to a higher level of self-satisfaction? Research in this area does not provide a clear answer.

Social distancing is an invention of the information age

If we look at the top countries in terms of a high level of happiness, they all have efficient education systems. Economic prosperity guarantees that the majority of residents have a fast Internet connection and access to new technologies. There is a vicious circle of factors that affect happiness, whereas technology is just one of many links in this chain. Much depends not only on health literacy but also on how new technologies are used to achieve individual goals. Without Facebook and Instagram, young people would not stay in touch with their peers, but they would not be inundated with fake news either, which now happens when they spend long hours looking at the smartphone screen. Thanks to computers, we gained more possibilities. Settling many matters that used to be complicated has become simpler, which means that we have more control over our lives and a weaker sense of being dependent on external factors. Thanks to computerization, we have discovered new ways of spending free time cherished during successive lockdowns. When direct contact is impossible, smartphones enable us to see and talk to our family members and friends, and even the doctor. Many patients have found support in online communities. Millions of people have tried virtual trainers and mobile health apps. Let’s imagine the pandemic in the analogue era – we would have been closed in our homes, in uncertainty, and without at least partial control over our own fate and the fate of our loved ones. Without digitization, there would be no “home office” or “telemedicine.” Technology made social distancing easier—we can order a pizza, get a prescription or go shopping online. Without technology, we could not develop a vaccine so quickly, and it would be challenging to coordinate international scientific cooperation so smoothly.

Making good use of a smartphone can change lives, but not the smartphone itself

Due to the adaptation effect, we no longer notice the influence that technology has on our lives. However, it hugely affects objective indicators, such as economic development, prosperity, education, and the sense of freedom, which are doubtlessly some of the components of happiness and health. All negative consequences—the digital divide, social media overuse, cybercrimes, and the loss of privacy—can be mitigated by appropriate regulations, technological improvements, improvement of digital literacy. We need to develop a new approach to the healthy use of technological innovations. Nonetheless, searching for correlations between the level of happiness and digital maturity may be misleading. Estonia, a country recognized as one of the innovative societies in Europe, ranked in 40th place in the World Happiness Report 2021. It is the exception that does not prove the rule. Happiness is a very individual state and cannot be studied using empirical indicators only. It’s not computers, smartphones, new apps, or gadgets that make us happy. It’s out the ability to use them to achieve individual goals, also regarding health and well-being.