Generation Unhappy

We're plugged in and bummed out — technology is making us much less merry

A new study conducted last month by San Diego State University indicates that Americans over the age of 30 are less happy today than we were 40 years ago. How can this be?

We have things we could never have imagined back in the 1970s — iPhones, the Internet, ESPN, online dating. Or maybe that’s the problem.

If we really are less happy, perhaps it’s because we spend less time staring into each other’s faces and more time staring at screens.

Lynnette Wilhardt, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Costa Mesa, California, suggests technology actually has a depressing effect on people.

“Happiness, much like self-esteem, often comes from hard work and self-discipline,” Wilhardt said. “We reap the reward after putting in the effort. Electronics have taken away much of the effort that youth have to put into social activities, schoolwork, or even play.”

If we’re less happy, perhaps it’s because we spend less time staring into each other’s faces and more time staring at screens.

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Technology makes schoolwork easier, but it doesn’t leave kids with a sense of accomplishment. It makes cyber dating possible, but that so often fails to lead to true connection.

Pornography and violent video games dehumanize us as they “entertain” us.

Related: Beware Those ‘Free’ Video Games

Perhaps today we have begun to mistake the pursuit of pleasure for the pursuit of happiness.

And consider this: Our technology-driven lives slice time to the point where we neither create nor experience anything beyond the ephemeral.

Perhaps today we have begun to mistake the pursuit of pleasure for the pursuit of happiness.

Consider this: The average American middle schooler has an iPad or laptop containing a more powerful recording studio than the Beatles possessed when they created “Abbey Road.” (So where are all the new Beatles?)

Access to technology does not equal access to creating happiness, or creating anything of lasting value. Yet, technology is where most of us spend more and more of our time.

We also may be stressed out chasing happiness simply because we put so much stress on happiness.

“Overvaluing happiness can possibly lead you to be less happy, since the more you value happiness, the more likely you are to experience disappointment when you’re not happy,” said Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist in Marin County, California. “Many people have a compulsive or pathological need to experience the visceral rush created by the positive or happy emotions of elation, joy, or bliss.”

Related: Color Me Happy

Lamia includes those who cheat on their spouses, believe they are happier on drugs or alcohol or while engaged in risky activities, or those with “an incessant need for external stimulation in order to feel good.”

Another major change is that little separates our work lives from our personal time these days.

Most of us routinely check email or answer work-related phone calls while on vacation. There’s no longer a legitimate excuse for being “out of pocket” if your phone’s in your pocket.

Parents work well into the evenings during time that formerly would have been devoted to each other or their children.

In many homes in the evenings, it’s one screen per person.

The family dinner? Sadly, in many households, it’s a distant memory at best.

Related: Is the Family Dinner Still Sacred?

Perhaps we find ourselves less happy because we’ve forgotten what pursuing happiness is all about.

The great motivator Earl Nightingale once defined success as “consistent activity in pursuit of a worthy goal.”

Our over reliance on technology, and our fascination with what’s happening right now, this moment, in our own lives and in the lives of those to whom we are tethered electronically, means that we have virtually no time left for pursuing meaningful goals.

Or even setting them.

It’s said that we spend as much as four hours a day on Facebook and other social media sites.

Related: Spoiled Teens Tune Out

If we aren’t sleeping less, where does that time come from?

Piano practice. Pursuing athletic goals. Reading great books. Being with our loved ones.

Or simply just sitting there and watching the world go by. Or thinking great thoughts.

I’d love to spend more time with you right now considering why we Americans are less happy than we were 40 years ago, but I’ve got a bunch of email to answer. And texts to send. And tweets to look at. And … and … and ….

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