How do smartphones interfere with a life of happiness?

What leads to a fulfilled life?

That’s a question philosophers and psychologists have been asking themselves since the beginning of recorded history. Three main paths to fulfillment have been suggested by research in positive psychology: a life of meaning, a life of engagement, and a life of pleasure. All three are shown to have a substantial bearing on well-being, or happiness; taken together, they represent the path to “the full life.” There are other pieces to the puzzle too, of course; strong social ties and rich relationships round out a basic understanding of happiness.

Smartphone addiction has been shown in study after study to be associated with lower well-being. How is our smartphone use keeping us from living a life of happiness? Not enough work has been done on that to answer conclusively. Regarding Facebook, specifically: we know the more people use Facebook, the less happy they are; but when asked why, researchers basically give a collective “we don’t know yet” shrug. They have ideas, of course: one is called “negative self-comparison”, where we compare our real lives to the positive things that tend to get shared online, and feel our life is worse by contrast. That, however, doesn’t fully explain it; even the people who spend most of their time posting or clicking links, rather than liking, experience decreases in well-being. When it comes to Facebook, the quantity is much more important than the quality. Our understanding of the mechanism driving this relationship is all still on fairly speculative theoretical grounds.

Here is what I suspect: smartphones interfere with every single path to happiness by substituting a deeply unsatisfying, artificial digital experience for time spent that actually meets our human craving for actual face-to-face interaction and real-life experiences. That’s not an especially sophisticated take; the reality is, the way tech affects us probably differs significantly from person to person, based on differences in personality. No doubt there is also a bi-directional aspect, where our level of well-being influences our smartphone use habits, not just the other way around.

What should be made clear here: our unhealthy smartphone use habits have been aided and abetted by intentional design from tech developers and advertisers. Social media, as with most online content, makes its money through advertising. Therefore, tech developers have incentive to snare as much of our attention as they possibly can. They have been very effective at doing this; the average Facebook user spends two hours of their day on Facebook, while the average smartphone user spends five hours of their day looking at a 3x5 inch screen. To quote Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, who makes his living teaching tech developers how to grab your attention: “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions”. Eyal actually addressed the ethical concerns over what he does at a seminar, compared tech to sugary baked goods, and said “do we want it any other way?” He then, unironically, suggested several ways for developers to avoid the attention traps they set for everyone else.

Do we want it any other way? I certainly do.

I want to explore briefly the various ways smartphone addiction gets in the way of experiencing a full life. These are a few of the reasons SwitchKick, and solutions like it, are so important; just a few of the reasons smartphone addiction cause so much hidden harm.

How could smartphone addiction interfere with a life of meaning? Again, the average smartphone user spends five hours a day on their phone. Smartphones can whittle away our time and attention spans, the time we usually use for reflection, contemplation, and learning. Social media is a huge component of this. Most people with smartphones check their social media when first waking up in the morning. This sets the frame for the rest of the day, and for many of us, social media is toxic. Numerous studies, each more vigorous than the last, show that the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel. What that means, is that we are replacing time we used to spend contemplating life with a constant stream of information. It isn’t deep information, either, the phone screen reinforcing a shorter and shorter attention span with surface-level information. With the constant preoccupation our smartphones provide, it is harder to find time or mental space to form a coherent sense of spiritual purpose or meaning. In other words, we are thinking less. In fact, there are several studies that show simply having a phone in the room makes us less intelligent. Having the phone present, even if you aren’t consciously thinking about it, draws on attention and drains brainpower. The higher one’s dependence on one’s phone, the worse this effect is.

How can smartphones possibly interfere in a life of pleasure? Don’t they offer a form of pleasure? Firstly, let me define a life of pleasure. This refers to our leisure time, having fun, doing things we enjoy. That means different things to different people. While that definition could include activities some people find morally objectionable, it can also simply mean enjoying yourself. Smartphones interfere with this by offering a cheap substitute. Smartphones are designed, with their bright colors, haptic feedback, and instant response mechanisms, to trigger our brain’s reward centers. But tapping and swiping on a 7-inch screen is not the same as diving headlong into a pool, the joy of petting your dog, or the mental calm that comes from a hot yoga session. Essentially, smartphones are often the worst of mental junk food, offered on a screen so small we hunch over it to get a better view.

The way smartphone use interferes with a life of engagement, or flow, was the subject of my Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. I spent a year and a half recruiting 200 participants and gathering data. Each participant completed an in-person survey, a week of short surveys texted to their phone at quasi-random times of day, and a conclusion survey via email. I looked at three main factors: smartphone addiction, the “flow state” people reported experiencing (measured by those short daily surveys), and satisfaction with life. What we found was exactly what I expected to find in my main hypothesis: “Flow” mediates the relation between smartphone addiction and satisfaction with life. What does that mean?

Firstly, people who scored higher on smartphone addiction said they were less satisfied with their lives. That negative correlation is partly explained by the flow those people experienced. In other words, one of the ways smartphone addiction makes people less happy is by keeping them from engaging fully in their life. As far as I know, my study was the first to study the link between smartphone addiction and flow theory. I’m currently in the process of writing the results to submit for publication in an academic journal.

That’s a brief overview of the ways smartphones interfere with our happiness. What will SwitchKick do about these issues?

SwitchKick is an app designed to harness the power of accountability, social learning, and group support to help us kick our smartphone habits and build healthier patterns of behavior. You will be able to form a group with your friends, family, co-workers, or even anonymous strangers to help you snap the attentional shackles tech designers have locked you into. Support groups aren’t a new way to kick addiction; this is a proven strategy. The genius lies in the simplicity. There is a gamification element as well; you gain points by setting goals and staying off your phone for given blocks of time. This helps build stronger self-control. By seeing what other people within the group are doing, and how your group compares to other groups, the app gives your achievements meaning in a wider social setting.

The best part? SwitchKick will be entirely free. Our philosophy is that smartphone addiction represents a national health crisis. A solution to it shouldn’t be hidden behind a paywall or subscription. We believe that if people believe in something strongly, they will support it, so SwitchKick will live on continuous crowdfunding. This starts with our Kickstarter campaign planned for January. That means that we need people to spread the word. Any crowdfunding venture requires, firstly and most importantly, awareness. Share this blog, share PhonePsychology.com, like and share the SwitchKick Facebook page. Help us make a difference today!