Screens Make Us Less Happy

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The other day I saw a guy hanging out on a park bench with a tennis racquet – repeatedly whacking himself in the shin with it. He had a bruise the size of a golf ball!

“Hi there!” I said as I passed by. “What are you doing?”

The guy nonchalantly responded, “Playing with my tennis racquet.”

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

He seemed surprised. “Tennis racquets are great!”

“Well of course they are – for playing tennis, but doesn’t it hurt to hit yourself in the shins like that?”

Now he sounded miffed: “Don’t tell me how to use my racquet!”

I’ll be honest, this didn’t actually happen. I made it up. But the moral is valid either way: Just because something is great (like a tennis racquet) doesn’t mean there aren’t good and bad ways to use it.

Let’s talk about cell phones, tablets and computers – otherwise known as devices. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but many of us are metaphorically whacking ourselves in the shin every day.

I recently revisited a TED Talk called Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy” where psychologist Adam Atler suggests that we are happier when we distance ourselves from our devices.

​Don’t worry, I’m not saying you should throw out your cell phone, but I AM saying that you can be happier by using it differently.

​​Each day we’re lucky if we have a bit of “me time” – even a small window of time that’s just for us. This is time when we’re not at work, running errands, taking care of kids, or generally “adulting” (not to be confused with “adultering” – which is something entirely different that also messes up your happiness). In the bits of the day that don’t get filled up, we find our hobbies, relaxation, social time, and rest. The time we use for ourselves is vital to our happiness.

Sadly, our screens infiltrating our “me time”, and it’s making us less happy!


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I know, it’s hard to leave work at work. And I know, it’s hard to convince kids to limit their screen time.* And I know app developers use advanced marketing tools to keep us hooked like addicts. So unlike the dude hitting himself in the shin, we’re being manipulated from the outside, not by some odd desire for pain. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re worse off.

Of course screens also enhance our lives, but we tend to use them more for things that take us in the opposite direction.

Atler’s study found that apps related to relaxation, exercise, weather, reading, education, and health tend to make users happy, but we spend much less time on these apps than we do those which tend to make us unhappy: social media, online dating, gaming, entertainment, web browsing, and news. In fact, we’re spending three times more on applications that are making us unhappy! Why?

Atler suggests one reason is because these apps don’t have natural “stop cues” that tell us when it’s time to move on to the next activity. Think of a newspaper, he says: Typically when you’re done reading it, you put it away. We don’t have that same stopping point with many of the apps we use. Our devices come with us everywhere we go and become inextricably linked to us. Think about “getting lost” in the bottomless scroll of social media. Before you even realize it, you’re looking at photos from your cousin’s friend’s aunt’s wedding! And then your “me time” is over.

So, here are some Do’s and Don’ts** to maximize your happiness:

DO integrate stop cues into your life. Anything where you’re shifting from one activity to another could be used as an opportunity to interrupt the tech time. Some of my students use timers on their web browsers to limit time on social media. I’ve sometimes set alarms to ensure I get up and move from my computer.

DO use your devices for specific, happy-making things: relaxation, exercise, weather, reading, education, and health. Hooray for happiness!

DO reclaim some tech-free times in your life: Meal times, for instance, could be device-free. Or morning walks. Or meetings. Or your morning work chunk where you don’t want to be interrupted. Put the phone out of sight and out of audible reach, or you’ll still be mentally distracted.

DON’T bottomless scroll. Practice mindful scrolling instead. When you realize you’re mindlessly swiping up, searching for an interesting reason to stay on the device, just stop!

DON’T overuse your device for happiness-stealing things. Minimize social media, online dating, gaming, entertainment, and web browsing. In fact, research says it might be best to eliminate these addictive activities entirely (don’t worry – you’ll find other ways to entertain yourself, keep up to date with friends, and get the daily news), but elimination probably sounds too restrictive for most people, so I’ll temper my recommendation. Set a clear time limit for yourself. Don’t want to? Think you can outwit the happiness statistics? No problem. You’re an adult. Go ahead and whack yourself in the shins!


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Here’s a challenge: Over the next week decide on one time of your day – 10-30 minutes to start – that will be tech-free. Stick with it for just a week and see how you feel. You may notice a big difference in your happiness!

Take the challenge and feel free to share your best tips, successes, and failures. We’re all in this together!

*The Canadian Pediatric Society has a great statement on kids and screen time: https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/screen-time-and-young-children
**Random side note: Believe it or not, the grammar community is divided on how to apostrophize “Do’s and “Don’ts”. I’ve used the least correct but the most visually appealing combination.


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