“What about technology?”
It’s a question I received at one of my first book events for Joyful, and have continued to receive in the year since. If you’ve read it, or been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that the primary focus of my work is the connection between the physical world and our emotional wellbeing. So what role does technology play in helping or hindering our quest for joy?
When I started exploring this question, I found a lot to suggest that technology mostly acts as a barrier to joy. There are a few different reasons for this:
1. Technology makes things more abstract.
I remember being a kid heading down to the Penny Auntie, a store in my town that had all kinds of fun trinkets, party supplies, and most importantly for my 10 year-old self, candy! At the register, I would pull out a couple of dollar bills, well-worn and soft like an old t-shirt, and my change would come back to me as a handful of cool, heavy coins. Now when I pay for something, maybe I insert a piece of flat plastic in a plastic terminal, but more often I just wave my phone over it or enter some numbers into a web page. Money is just one of many things that technology has made less tangible and more abstract in my lifetime. Grocery shopping, hailing a cab, buying clothes, sending a birthday card… Technology de-materializes our everyday experiences.
But if, as I believe, our sensory experiences are a powerful conduit to joy, technology reduces these in variety, quantity, and intensity. The feeling of writing on a page has the texture of the paper and the scent of the ink, the movement of the pen and the sound it makes on the page. Typing on a laptop has no scent, no array of textures. The current state of our technology flattens experiences. It speaks to visual and auditory modalities, yet has little to offer our other senses.
2. Technology prioritizes efficiency.
I’m not sure if this is an intrinsic feature of digital technology, or whether this is driven by the interests of the people creating the apps we use every day, but most of our technology drives toward efficiency, not toward joy. That’s not to say that the two can’t coincide. Some apps feel magical, especially when they’re new. Think of Uber and the way it used to feel like summoning a car out of thin air! But apps like Uber are fundamentally created to make our lives more convenient or faster or less work, and if there’s delight, it’s usually there to capture our attention (more on that in a moment).
Amazon, Instacart, Lyft, OpenTable, online banking and digital wallet apps, Seamless (I mean, it’s even in the name!) exist to remove a friction in our lives. This isn’t necessarily bad — and in fact, when used well, these services can give us time back that we can use for joy — but the goal is efficiency. Joy is an afterthought.
3. Technology hoards our attention.
This is the one most often cited in the news. Technology products are designed with the goal of maximizing engagement, and that means sucking up as much of your attention as you’ll willingly give. And what we’ve learned is that most of us will give quite a lot of it away, often without even realizing it.
This has been top of mind for me since reading this article about Nir Eyal, the author of a book that instructed Silicon Valley startups on how to make their products as addictive as possible, now coming out with a book that educates people on how to fight tech addiction. To me, this is like a tobacco company saying to people, “It’s not our fault that you’re addicted to our product. It’s yours. And now we’ll show you how you can have more self-control so you can quit.” (Ugh.)
Let’s be clear. The metrics that define success for companies like Facebook are how often you use the product, how much time you spend on it, and how many times you tap or click while there. There are probably times when this serves your interests, like when Facebook sends you a notification so you don’t miss a time-sensitive invite to a friend’s party, but most of the time, the tech companies’ business interests are not aligned with your joy. Algorithms tend to amplify negative emotions like fear and outrage, prioritizing this content in our feeds because we’re more likely to click on it. And research shows that when we spend too much time on social media, our happiness decreases. Americans spend an average of more than 4 hours a day on their phones, which adds up to 56 full days a year. Is your phone bringing you so much joy that it’s worth spending 15% of your whole year on it?
Tech companies have a vested interest in making this seem like it’s your fault: you don’t have enough self-control. (Which is basically the premise of Eyal’s new book.) But ethical designers take issue with this ¯_(ツ)_/¯ attitude, which is an oversimplification at best. Yes, we need to cultivate self-control. But designers also need to stop making things that they know are counter to their users’ interests. If a large part of my emotional experience with technology is guilt about how I’m using it, disappointment about the things I’m missing out on while mindlessly scrolling, even self-loathing for my seeming inability to control my own attention, then this is a profoundly unjoyful experience, and in the long run, it’s not good for tech companies or for users.
So, what can we do about it?
No wonder so many people believe that the answer is quitting technology. Indeed, if you search for ways to get more joy from technology, you’ll find books on “digital minimalism,” breaking up with your phone, doing a tech “detox,” and a host of other variations on the theme. This time last year, an article made the rounds about the stringent rules that tech company execs have for their own children. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones,” said one.
Anyone else a little depressed? Honestly, after reading all that, it’s not easy to be hopeful that technology could do anything to enhance joy. And yet…
When I think about giving up my devices, there are countless moments of joy I’d miss. The midday texts from my husband, punctuated with a funny string of emojis and an inside joke. The “we never would’ve found this” hole-in-the-wall restaurant discovered on a road trip thanks to a random message board. The memories I can laugh about years later that I never would’ve remembered if I didn’t have a phone always in my pocket. The delight of having the exact right song right at my fingertips (even if it doesn’t sound quite as good as the analog version). The teenaged Joyful reader I was able to connect with halfway across the country, whom I would never have met otherwise. The ability to see and share in the nearly 20,000 #joyspotting posts you all have shared on Instagram.
Not to mention the things I’ve been able to teach myself (how to start a garden, how to bake an apple galette), the people I’ve met and the friends from afar I’ve been able to keep in touch with, the ideas exchanged and shared. My interactions with this community of joyspotters and joymakers light me up every single day. I started this blog 10 years ago and I can’t imagine my life without it and the people it has brought into my life. While a low-tech or no-tech life is right for some, I believe mine would be much poorer.
That’s not say that there aren’t benefits to unplugging every now and then and limiting our use of apps that get in the way of the lives we want to be living. This summer I deleted the Twitter app from my phone and was delighted to discover how many books I was able to read in the time I’d previously been scrolling. I kept the app off my phone. I’m also in favor of setting an email autoresponder when I’m taking vacation or self-care days, setting my phone on flight mode during yoga and therapy, and keeping my phone plugged in away from my bed so it’s not the first thing I look at in the morning.
But what strikes me about the tech minimalist prescriptions is that many of these are designed to make our technology less joyful, so that we’re less tempted to use it. For example, one popular recommendation is to make your iPhone home screen black and white. This makes it less enticing, but also much less pleasant when I actually do need to do something. These kinds of strategies remind me of the owner of an undisciplined pet who has to cover all surfaces with tin foil and plastic. It contains the problem, but the “solutions” make daily life pretty annoying.
So lately I’ve been wondering if there’s another approach: a way to rethink my relationship with technology so that it has more of what brings me joy, and less of what brings me down. (And while there’s a whole conversation to be had here about how designers can contribute to creating tech that’s more enjoyable and less unhealthy, this post takes a more individual lens.) What can you and I do, as tech users, to cultivate a more joyful relationship with the technology we have right now?
This search led me to Pamela Pavliscak, a futurist and designer who embraces a philosophy called positive technology, which focuses on ways our technology can bring us closer to the things we truly care about. Pamela has studied the ways that different people use technology, and came to a simple conclusion: “People who are happy with technology do things differently.” What follows are six things I learned from her about how to use technology to cultivate more joy. (You can also watch my full conversation with Pamela here.)
Worry about distortion, not distraction
A lot of the conversation around the problems with tech focuses on the fact that it’s distracting. But Pamela’s research suggests this isn’t necessarily cause for worry. She says, “One of my first big studies was a huge diary study about people’s highs and lows, and the lows all seemed to be around — and I was surprised by this — not necessarily distraction but distortion.” People are unhappiest with technology when it distorts their sense of self, their relationships, or their interests in things they used to love. When we feel that tech is making our friendships feel superficial, or amplifying our insecurities about ourselves, or our interactions feel more negative than in real life, these are moments to watch out for and start to take corrective action.
Distraction, on the other hand, is more about context. “If we frame technology as productivity and efficiency,” Pamela says, “it’s really easy to say ‘Well, it’s all about time’ and time means we’re being distracted by it. But what I find is that it’s not just about time.” In fact, there are moments when distraction can actually be a source of joy. She points to the rabbit holes we sometimes end up going down when doing online research. “We think about that as a distraction or that we’re getting off track, instead of looking at it as a way we are synthesizing and bringing together a lot of different ideas.”
In other cases, during a boring or stressful wait, for example, the distraction offered by technology can be a welcome one. The audiobooks my husband and I listen to in the car are a joyful distraction from the tedium of traffic. A podcast at the DMV can be a godsend. Just because technology is taking your attention away from the present moment, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.
Stop shaming yourself for your tech use
If there’s one thing that shuts down joy quickly, it’s shame. When we feel like we’re weak or foolish because it’s hard to stop scrolling, this not only diminishes our joy, but it makes us feel powerless, which only makes it harder to change our behaviors.
To fight that feeling of shame, it’s important to remember that many apps have been specifically designed to be addictive. Just like slot machines, they tap into innate neural mechanisms that make it hard for us to disengage. App designers are aware, for example, that uncertain rewards are more compelling than certain ones, which makes us keep checking our feeds to see if this time there’s a really cute dog video at the top. They know that we crave a sense of belonging, which will keep us coming back to see how many likes our post has gotten from others.
As users, we can’t change this, but Pamela says that we can think of these impulses in a more generous light. For example, the impulse to check your phone when a text message comes in while driving is dangerous if acted upon. But the reason we feel inclined to check is because we’re social animals wired for connection. We’re not trying to check because we’re addicts who can’t be unplugged for a few hours. We’re trying to check because we’re being alerted to the opportunity to connect, and it’s only natural to want to take advantage of that. These impulses are deep and primal; they’re so strong because they originated to help our ancestors survive.
Enabling driver mode (or turning off notifications while driving) is a great solution to this problem, eliminating the danger without you having to restrain yourself. Focusing on the practical solution can help us manage impulses that are not adaptive in a given moment, while maintaining an appreciation of the benefits those impulses provide in other contexts.
Customize your technology to fit your needs
Enabling driver mode is one examples of this, but there are plenty of others. Turning off notifications for non-essential apps is a simple one. Pamela also recommends disabling auto-play features when possible, as these tend to keep us locked in a content loop without allowing us to pause for reflection and self-awareness. Creating intentional pauses can help to make your tech use more mindful.
Be aware of dark patterns, a word used to describe features that bias you toward actions that might not be in your best interest. And recognize that you don’t have to take your technology exactly as it’s given to you. For example, after a developer created a way for users to view their Twitter feeds chronologically (as originally designed) rather than algorithmically (as it is now), Twitter added an option for all users to revert to a chronological timeline. As Pamela notes, “Chronological feeds are thought to be better for creativity than algorithmically-driven feeds because you’re seeing the progression of an idea.”
Similarly, if a person who makes you feel envious or annoyed shows up too often in your feeds, mute or unfollow them. Konmari your feeds and apps and remove anything that makes you feel down. You can even use your passwords as a tool for joy. I love this story from Momo Estrella, about what happened when he used his password as an affirmation in the painful aftermath of his divorce.
Also, Pamela notes, don’t just use the “suggested reactions” emojis that Facebook gives you. While tech companies want you to use the stock reactions because it gives them a data set to analyze, these have a tendency to oversimplify or distort our responses. Taking time to choose an emoji (or write a response) that comes from the heart can make your communication more authentic and more meaningful.
Use technology to do more of what brings you joy in the rest of your life
According to Pamela, when people are happiest with their tech use, it’s because they’re using it to create personal meaning. “And that tends to be the same way we make meaning in the rest of our life,” she says, “through connection, through personal expression and creativity, and through transcending or compassion. Those are the guiding principles that are really making people feel good about their technology use.”
“You have to look at what is the goal you have that will bring you joy and meaning,” says Pamela, “and then look at [what you’re doing with technology] and see whether it’s contributing to that…Most of our repetitive habitual use does have something bigger going on under the surface that we need to look to.”
In other words, technology is just another tool, and we can use it in ways that align with our purpose and joy, or in ways that don’t. One exercise I find helpful here is to look for the deeper craving behind your unsavory tech habits. If you work from home and you find yourself picking up your phone every few minutes to scroll social media, maybe what you’re really craving is connection. So what’s a more meaningful way to satisfy that craving? The answer could be to text a friend and set up a weekly phone date. If you’re addicted to Pinterest, maybe the craving is more about feeling creative. So pick a project and go make it. Or if you’re binging on news feeds, maybe the deeper craving is information. So download an e-reader or audiobook app and read a non-fiction book when you’re tempted to scroll. (I particularly love the Libby app, which lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks using your library card!)
These don’t have to be serious either. Maybe your craving is for cuteness (no judgment here), so you scroll for cute animal memes. Maybe the answer is to ask a friend or two with a similar penchant to have a text thread where you share the best doggos on the internet. Or maybe you join a Facebook group where those kinds of things are shared and only go there when you’re taking a break, so you can avoid the toxic political rants your uncle posts three times a day.
Similarly, if there’s something that brings you joy, but you just don’t do it very often in your daily life, see if technology can be a conduit to that for you. If gratitude makes you feel good, make a calendar reminder to send a note of gratitude a couple of times a week. If you love to dance, queue up YouTube videos for when you get home from work so you can learn a new move or two. If you want to learn a new language, download Duolingo and practice on your commute.
Technology is so dominant that it can easily dictate how we spend our time. Instead, think about how you want to spend your time and use your technology to support you in doing that.
Reframe your tech activities
Because we’ve been conditioned to see technology as time wasting or distracting, we tend to view our online activities in this negative light. For example, the act of composing a photo, editing it, and writing a caption for Instagram can be tremendously creative. But according to Pamela, we rarely acknowledge it as such. “It seems to us like it’s wasting time because it has to do with technology,” she says, but notes that when people reframe their tech use and allow themselves to appreciate the creativity or connection involved, they become much happier with their tech use.
When we reframe our online activities, sometimes we can become aware of the ways that technology enhances our intention. When it comes to creativity, Pamela notes that “recency and speed actually help our creativity in a weird way. One big part of creativity is the ability to remix, that is to integrate different ideas and bring all those ideas together into a new context. Technology is really great for that.”
One of the ways technology has brought joy for me is through joyspotting. While I can notice and appreciate joy on my own, research shows that we find significantly more joy in an experience when we share it. Being able to share these moments of joy with others, and have others share their joy with me, has helped heighten my joy in the moment and helped me feel more connected to others. While this could easily be written off as wasting time on social media, I truly believe it contributes to my well-being, and reframing it as such helps me see that time for what it really is.
I think this reframe can be really helpful in thinking not only about our own tech use, but that of kids. When I talked to developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik about this (listen to that conversation here), she noted that every generation has to cope with new technology. “The day before you were born is always Eden,” she says, “and the day after your children are born is Mad Max.” She recalls how Saturday morning cartoons were once vilified as rotting kids’ brains, then describes being at a recent event where a speaker lamented that kids no longer watch those cartoons. Sometimes (not always) kids are using technology in ways that are intensely creative, playful, or connecting. Focusing on the purpose and reframing where necessary can help clarify when kids’ tech use might have deeper value vs. when it’s detrimental to their happiness and growth.
Co-use technology with others
Lastly, Pamela advises us to take a cue from teenagers. If you look at kids, they often co-use technology, meaning they use their devices together in real time. Often they’ll pass a phone around to look at a photo or a meme, laughing about it together. As Pamela says, “The idea of co-using is really a way of strengthening relationships, so the screen isn’t becoming a blocker in between your relationship but instead it’s bringing you closer together in various ways.”
Other ways to co-use? Scroll through photos with your partner before bed and talk about your memories. Build a collaborative playlist while on a road trip, each person taking turns to contribute a song. Listen to an audiobook together. Solve the crossword puzzle with a friend. In all these cases, the technology becomes a connection point instead of a barrier, something to spark a deeper conversation or connection.
All of which to say, when I come back to that original question at my book event, “What about technology?” I see darkness and also potential. I think design has a lot of work to do, but there’s still a lot that we as users can do to live with our devices in more harmony, and with more joy.
As Pamela says, “The most influential piece of this, for me, is that I don’t have to give up on technology entirely to have the benefits. And the benefits aren’t just productivity and efficiency and speed, they can be more meaningful. They can be those big contributors to my wellbeing, and usually that falls back to creativity and connection and compassion.”
This post was based in large part on my conversation with Pamela Pavliscak as part of the Joy Makeover, a free program that includes 11 interviews on how you can find more joy different parts of your life. It also includes a downloadable 25-page workbook to help you put these ideas into practice. Learn more and watch for free, here.