“We all carry things in our pockets that are proven to make us unhappy. The nature of the human mind probably hasn’t changed yet the technology we’re carrying around has changed.”
Speaking from the 2018 Fast Company Innovation Festival, David Gelles, New York Times reporter and author of Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From The Inside Out, tells the audience that the prevalence of technology in modern-day life has resulted in a sense of “personal sense of disconnection.” We’re so used to a “hamster wheel loop of dopamine hits,” Gelles said, that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
But Michael Acton Smith, cofounder of meditation app Calm, believes that it’s not the technology that’s making us unhappy, but the way we’ve been using it. Acton Smith acknowledged the irony of founding a company designed to alleviate stress using the very platform that contributes so much to modern-day stress in the first place. He goes on to say, “These supercomputers we carry with us, they are neither good, nor bad, it’s how we use them that matter. This is why meditation and mindfulness is so important; it improves our awareness. We can use these devices for us, rather than against us. We can use these devices in positive ways; I think that’s the important way of thinking about it.”
Naomi Hirabayashi–cofounder and co-CEO of mindfulness app Shine–agrees. “It’s a very thin line.” In a world where it’s almost impossible to escape from technology, she urges people to think about their relationship with it in terms of time well spent, rather than time spent. There’s mindlessly scrolling something, Hirabayashi, says, and then there is finding a supportive community that lifts you up when you need. “What we want to do is better arm our community to figure out how technology can serve them versus the other way around.”
The problem with pursuing happiness
America prides itself on pursuing happiness–so much so that the founding fathers codified it in the declaration of independence. Yet looking at the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, the U.S. ranks just No. 18, down 4 places from last year.
“As a generation, we’re not necessarily happier, but we’re more aware of it,” says Marah Lidey, cofounder and co-CEO of Shine. And Ben Schiller previously reported for Fast Company, technology isn’t the only thing making people less happy. Economist Jeffrey Sachs attributed the decline in happiness to fewer people feeling like they’re in control of their lives, fewer people feeling like they have people to count on in times of need, and fewer people trusting politicians and public figures. This generation–despite expecting more–is also earning less money than previous generations, Lidey says.
Shine and Calm might be in the “business of happiness,” but Hirabayashi tells the audience that they try to stay away from using the word “happy.” It feels confusing when we treat it like a milestone, she says. Gelles agrees. “I try to stay away from happiness as a target. It falls into this dualistic trap. You’re either happy or you’re not. What I try think more about is equanimity and peace.”
Acton Smith urges the audience to shift their focus from pursuing happiness, to striving for purpose. “Happiness comes from purpose and often purpose beyond just ourselves. That’s when I know I’m making a person happy.”