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The Highs and Lows of Living with Technology

We learned a lot about what happiness really means when it comes to technology by asking people to track their highs and lows.

The Challenge

Plenty of research looks at how technology has a negative impact on our lives. We knew it would be harder to capture positive moments. The negative moments stand out. The positive moments, often, are invisible. In order to understand the positive and negative patterns, we collected hundreds of examples.

Strategy

We had almost 500 people share their highs and lows in online diaries over the course of a week. People submitted one high and one low each day. Each entry included a picture or screenshot of the moment, a description, and some information about their state of mind and emotional response. Our researchers tagged each entry with the site, app, or device name as well as with activities or themes that were relevant to each entry.

Each person answered a shortened version of the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire initially, so we could get a read on each participant’s set point. We were curious to see if there would be a difference between happier people and less happy people.

Insights

As the data came in, strong patterns emerged around what makes people feel good and not so good about technology in their lives.

    • Unhappy moments occur when people feel dumb. The technology lows were often moments where people felt like they couldn’t accomplish something they set out to do, something that should have been easy. I feel like they went out of their way to make a simple thing, like transferring money to my account, difficult.
    • Happy moments not always easy though. Wink (above) or anything that takes some effort to learn or set up, can lead to an intense positive moment. The sense of mastery and working toward a goal counterbalanced any negatives along the way.
    • Lows feel invasive. The technology lows were often moments where people felt mistrust. We saw plenty of long terms and conditions, error messages with no way to get back on track, examples of sites collecting data where if seemed unnecessary. However, people also found the tone of sites untrustworthy when it seemed aloof or even too cheeky and clever.
    • People feel happy when they are doing something creative. And they define creativity broadly, anything from making Spotify playlists to gifting a Flipagram to a BFF, to choosing a filter on Instagram. People also felt creative when they reached a flow state, where they had already accomplished their goal and were able to follow their curiosity and discover new things.
    • Moments of connection are key to happiness online. It’s not surprising that connection is so important to online happiness. Positive psychology research has shown that connection is at the core of happiness. What did surprise us is the depth and breadth of connections that had an impact. Social media happiness is not so much about likes. People were happiest when real-life friends shared vulnerabilities rather than humble brags. Comments were just OK, whereas photo reviews showing real people were truly happy moments.
    • Happier people using technology to actively engage with other people. People who characterized themselves as happier in the initial questionnaire did seem to have a different approach to technology. Technology was a way to actively engage with other people. Rather than passively observing on social media, or posting for likes, they were fostering deeper connections.
    • Happy moments are often about personal growth. Duolingo and other learning apps, charity websites, citizen science apps, and even Pinterest boards were considered as opportunities to learn about the world. This made people happy, partly because they were also learning about themselves in the process.
    • Thoughtful details do have an impact. While people tended to miss, or simply dismiss, clever error messages or cute animations, people did appreciate attention to detail. It’s like when a friend thinks about you and comes up with a gift that really means something versus someone who just picked up some flowers at the grocery store.

The least happy moments were characterized by a lack of autonomy or trust. The happiest moments related to three broad themes: connection, creativity, and growth. The big picture outcome of this round of diary research is that happiness with technology seems to be a balance of pleasure and purpose.