The one thing we all do everyday that makes us unhappy

Posted by
Megan Murray

According to a study, this incredibly common way to spend our time is depleting our happiness levels. 

Thanks to the rise of smart phones, the internet has evolved from a useful resource to a monumental, deeply ingrained part of our every day lives.

As screens have slowly come to dominate the majority of our waking moments, so have concerns for what this digital exposure is doing to our mental health.

Numerous studies have explored this topic, finding a direct correlation between time spent on social media and feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness and isolation, to a link between obsessive googling of health symptoms to rising levels of anxiety.

Now, 27 years of research have been compiled - and the results confirm that excessive screen time is the unifying act that’s making us all miserable.

Researchers at San Diego State University have been taking annual surveys of American high school students since 1991, to assess their psychological well-being in relation to the amount of time they spend on electronic screens, either texting, gaming or going online.

Over this time, the researchers surveyed more than a million students, taking notes on their self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness in a bid to quantify their mental health. 

Are you ever without your phone?

Tellingly, researchers noticed a drop in happiness levels post 2012, when smart phones became more readily available to young people. They also noted that the mental health of adults seemed to decrease after the year 2000, when the internet became more prevalent.

By comparing the psychological well-being of people who reported spending a large amount of their spare time on a screen, versus those who socialised in person, read books or took part in physical activities, they found that time away from screens made people happier.

Writing for Quartz, one of the study’s lead authors, Jean Twenge, explains these findings further: “Every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness.

“The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.”

But excessive screen time isn’t just a problem for teenagers. Twenge writes that adults over the age of 30 also seem to be unhappier following the rise of internet.

She continues: “A similar trend might be occurring for adults: My co-authors and I previously found that adults over age 30 were less happy than they were 15 years ago, and that adults were having sex less frequently.

“There may be many reasons for these trends, but adults are also spending more time with screens than they used to.”

Is your laptop part of your daily life?

Surprisingly, Twenge doesn’t advise ditching screens altogether.

Instead, she reports that those who use the internet occasionally, without letting it take over their lives, were the happiest. 

Twinge explains: “Somewhat surprisingly, we found that teens who didn’t use digital media at all were actually a little less happy than those who used digital media a little bit (less than an hour a day). Happiness was then steadily lower with more hours of use. Thus, the happiest teens were those who used digital media, but for a limited amount of time.

“The answer, then, is not to give up technology entirely. Instead, the solution is a familiar adage: everything in moderation. Use your phone for all the cool things it’s good for. And then set it down and go do something else.”

Essentially, the key to happiness is balance, and while we can’t imagine ourselves ditching our phones any time soon, there are definitely ways we could be achieving a better equilibrium. For example, how about swapping mindless Facebook scrolling for some of these more constructive ways of spending your time digitally?

Images: iStock / Matthew Kane