Our obsession with happiness leads us to seek out elixirs and excitement, often undermining the happiness we seek to attain. Given that we enshrine a pillar of our Constitution to the Pursuit of Happiness, it is curious that we’ve slid to number 23 in this year’s Annual World Happiness Report.

In previous years (2017, 2018), I’ve focused on structural and social issues and tensions that point to security and social cohesion gaps that might keep the U.S. out of the top 10.

Last year, I highlighted insights from Finland, consistently ranked #1 in overall happiness. Finns identify with deep satisfaction, or eudaimonia, a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

This year, the Happiness Report also focuses on people’s happiness at different life stages.

A Deep Dive

This year’s Annual Happiness Report was met with three additional touchstones:

1. For the first time, the World Happiness Report’s found that those under 30—mostly in the U.S. and then in Canada—were the unhappiest.

2. The U.S. Surgeon General focused on youth and “the dangers of social media.”

3. A new book offers mounting evidence that pegs the younger generation’s anxiety with smartphones.

The unexamined and ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social media has increased over the past 15 years. In a two-part blog series, I will examine this situation in depth.

In this part 1, I’ll explore a dimension of our Happiness dilemma. I’ll use these three recent data sets above to explore how smartphones and social media have contributed to the rot at the center of our happiness dilemma.

Part 2 of this blog will address how we might rethink and cultivate the mind of happiness.

To be clear, happiness is a complex term to explore, and several factors go into one’s overall satisfaction. But now, our 21st-century technologies have the power to shape minds at a rate unimaginable two decades ago. It is time to reconsider how and what we consume—and even perhaps why we consume as we do.

Under 30: The Impact of Social Media

Three benchmarks point to a common claim: The effects of smartphones and social media have rewired our minds, especially young minds.

This set of techno-structures has burrowed into our minds, distorting our thinking and rewiring our expectations. This can be complicated when we believe these structures are “necessary” ingredients to our happiness recipe.

1- The World: Youthful Trends

This year, the 12th Annual World Happiness Report focused on the younger generation. Across much of the world, including Central and Eastern Europe, the youngest cohort was happier than the oldest. Likewise, negative emotions are more frequent now than in 2006–2010 everywhere except in East Asia and Europe.

The United States and Canada were outliers in the generational trend, with the youngest group being less happy than the oldest.

Economist John Helliwell, a coauthor of the report, was surprised at “such an extreme change” in the drop in happiness among younger people. “This has all happened in the last 10 years, and it’s mainly in the English-language countries. There isn’t this drop in the world as a whole.”

For the U.S., the happiness gap has risen since 2010 and actually puts the youngest group as the least happy of all age ranges, including the middle-aged group—a more traditional metric of dissatisfaction.

A 2022 Harvard University study showed that well-being among young adults in the U.S. had declined in the previous 20 years.

Young people—those between the ages of 18 and 25—reported the lowest levels of happiness compared with other age groups as well as the poorest mental and physical health, sense of purpose, character, virtue, close social relationships, and financial stability.

2- The Nation: Surgeon General Speaks

Are younger people less happy because of actual circumstances, or are they just more tuned into them because of their constant access to social media? Moreover, is social media amplifying a constant diet of negative and hyperbolic news to ensure clicks?

These are questions Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy has grappled with. In May 2023, he issued a new advisory:

The most common question parents ask me is, “is social media safe for my kids.” The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.

Last month, after spending time with the younger generation, Murthy sounded the alarm.

In one instance, Murthy met with a group of young people and concluded their phones were feeding them a diet of “headlines that are constantly telling them that the world is broken and that the future is bleak.”

The latest Gallup data show that American teens spend five hours a day just on social media. In the U.S., Gallup suggests that younger people’s unhappiness could be because of an epidemic of loneliness. Between 2000 and 2020, the amount of in-person time young people in the U.S. spent with their friends decreased by 70%.

Murthy told the Guardian, “Students said to me, ‘How are we supposed to start a conversation?’” He continued with the following:

It’s just not the culture anymore to talk to one another. It’s an indictment of the trends that we’ve seen. What’s happening in social media is the equivalent of having children in cars that have no safety features and driving on roads with no speed limits.

No traffic lights and no rules whatsoever. And we’re telling them: “You know what, do your best – figure out how to manage it.” It is insane if you think about it.

3- The Latest in Literature

Social Psychologist and NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt is not surprised by these data or the effects of social media. In his new book, The Anxious Generation, he has launched a full-scale war against social media and smartphone use by kids and teens. His thesis is quite brutal:

Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board. Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity—all were affected. (Atlantic, 3/13/2024)

Haidt adopts a quasi-stoic, deeply rational approach to these ills, culling mounds of data and exploring layers of our mind to impact social cohesion. He’s worked with Social Scientist Jean Twenge, whose 2023 Tome “Generations” culled data from six generations to highlight their differences.

Both scholars show the causal links between smartphone use, social media, and mental health for the younger generation. Haidt details how this has evolved since 2010 when most everyone had a flip phone:

[People] had no high-speed data, no high-speed internet, and they had to pay for their internet usage. They had to pay for each text. So a 13- or 14-year-old kid … was not online all day long.

[Then] Instagram becomes very popular. The front-facing camera comes out [on iPhones] in 2010. So now photographs are much more of yourself. Most people get high-speed internet, most people get an unlimited data plan. And video games get much more immersive with multiplayer online games that thrive on the high-speed internet.

… in 2010, [tech] was not terribly harmful. But by 2015, it was.

Haidt pegs the increases in mental illness and distress beginning around 2012, just shortly after smartphones and social media burrowed into young minds. His research coincides with the rise of “influencers” online, a culture that emerged in 2009 and took hold by 2013 to influence consumption priorities and habits.

By 2016, 74% of people turned to social networks for guidance on purchase decisions, while 49% of people said they relied on recommendations from influencers.

Media over Mind

What is the effect of smartphones, front-facing cameras, multiple platforms, endless scrolling, and a culture of “influencers” who support anytime, anywhere and who can be easily accessed by anyone?

This letter to the editor, from an article on this topic, represents a collective frustration:

Even with education, children do not have enough impulse control, experience, or wisdom to navigate the socially complex spaces online independently. The siren call of dopamine chasing the instant gratification of small screens vastly outweighs the rigors of the actual school day. This is a constant battle inside classrooms to keep kids off their phones during class. Young minds are not ready to manage the addiction and social complexity components of smartphones.

Then there’s the role parents play, using technology to stay connected 24/7 and track their kid’s moment-to-moment. This larger topic requires parents to rethink their role. (Haidt addresses parenting in this video).

My focus on our mind is intentional: The rotting of the mind has deleterious effects on our whole being—as specific technologies, incentives, and habits form a perfect storm of

  • Cravings to connect, belong, and avoid boredom,
  • Confusion from hacking our attention, leading to compulsive thinking, distorted images and narratives, and
  • Isolation that results from losing ourselves in mindless activities.

This triad can lead us down social media rabbit holes, greater polarization, increased isolation, anxiety, and depression, which lead to more cravings.

1- Confused Minds, Changing Attitudes

The issue isn’t so much the technology as the age we introduce it, its addictive nature by design, and the motive for pushing it.

Content providers learned to game in the system. Algorithms amplify negative news, grievances, misinformation, misogyny, hyperbolic conspiracies, and outrage narratives to ensure clicks and commercial traction, addicting unsuspecting minds.

Indeed, according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2005, less than 9% of U.S. teens reported at least one major depressive episode. By 2022, that number had risen to roughly 20%.

Changing attitudes about beauty, success, fun, “friends,” and connections have emerged from a swamp of filtered images and screen obsessions that lack real-world experiences and vitality.

Confused minds consuming toxic sludge are left at the mercy of algorithms designed to hack our attention and maximize profits for a select few. Moguls chalk up the rot left in the wake as collateral damage after beta testing on an unsuspecting public.

Pouring toxic sludge into developing or otherwise distracted minds undermines clear perceptions, deep connection, concentration, and effective decision-making, further hacking our attention.

I’ve witnessed this reality over the past 15 years:

  • When pummeled with too many choices, we get stuck and lost, even avoiding choosing.
  • When assaulted with too much information, we become confused and overwhelmed.
  • When offered too many easy-access cravings, we will over-indulge.
  • When engaging with too much stimulus, we become numb and anxious.
  • When fed alarmist headlines and “news” founded on distorted perspectives, we become fearful, helpless, and isolated.
  • When viewing filtered images, our mind distorts reality, seeking perfection via a cycle of comparison and loss.

2- Changing Expectations

In addition to common conditions such as anxiety, depression, and body image issues, many clients who retain coaches experience “functional” issues that undermine performance.

How often do we find ourselves scrolling through feeds, distracted, and in a state of trance? In an increasingly volatile world, every day, we waste hours on social media, compulsively checking “likes” and emojis and navigating texts and DMs that undermine our performance.

The following are a few common issues that have increased over the past decade:

1- The Internet’s “digital pace” cultivates unrealistic expectations. Younger professionals want instant results, gravitating toward quick fixes for massive societal problems, and can quickly become disappointed.

2- The inability to focus or concentrate causes people to not prepare for meetings or events and rely on winging it, leading to confusion and missteps.

3- Fear-driven decisions and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) result in compromised decision-making. FOMO can also lead to unhealthy priorities, overspending, or compulsive social media monitoring that undermines long-term commitments.

4- Unrealistic comparisons and striving for perfection can lead to negative outcomes, such as procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, toxic comparisons, and a lack of creativity.

5- Magical, black-and-white, and impulsive thinking simplifies complex issues, leads to greater reactivity, and encourages extremes and obsessions daily that negatively impact self-esteem.

Confusion, FOMO, lack of performance, and lower self-esteem cause isolation, disappointment, and general dissatisfaction in life. Those most susceptible are younger minds who lack any frame of reference or broader perspective of a world without social media; it has also brought about distracted professionals who have yet to balance or limit social media consumption.

3- Changing Ethos

With their perverse side effects and impact, smartphones and social media lack sufficient boundaries, guardrails, or limitations for an age group still developing biologically, psychologically, hormonally, and sociologically.

This is the first time in human history that powerful new technologies have been tested on developing minds without supervision or some form of mediation.

  • Each generation of electronic devices, such as the telegraph, telephone, television, and video games, even home appliances, required learning curves, boundaries, or levels of supervision.
  • More dangerous technologies, such as automobiles, guns, and weapons of mass destruction, require even more layers of education, training, or licensing.

We employ guardrails and age restrictions to ensure maturity and competency—an important ethos influencing individuals—before using technologies that can impact society.

Ethos is the expression of character or consciousness, which, in turn, has been shaped by action. Today, however, this is reversed. Technology influences ethos by shaping a culture based on greed, instant desires, and fame.

Digital ethicist Tristan Harris stated as much in a 2016 post—eight years ago! When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:

“What’s not on the menu?”

“Why am I being given these options and not others?”

“Do I know the menu provider’s goals?”

“Is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?” (e.g., an overwhelming array of toothpastes.)

In the 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, Tristan highlights the tech industry’s intention and design, facilitating our current tech addition.

Perhaps the biggest quandary and danger of our current ethos involves mind rot: becoming numb to our consciousness, forgetting that we can or even know how to think critically or recognize or discern the truth in any situation. We’ve stopped being curious, mindlessly scrolling to the next layer of menus and options.

Waking Up!

Would you allow your kids, yourself, or your parents to only eat pizza and cookies and drink beer all day, every day? How would consuming this level of junk food affect their bodies, sleep, and attitudes?

Why, then, do we pour such junk into our minds? Such a diet and unexamined level of consumption demands critical scrutiny.

Public policy lags beyond common sense. If we related to smartphones and social media as addictive “mind-altering drugs,” we’d rein in the casual attitudes we do not apply to other areas of life.

Today, the average child in the U.S. has a smartphone by age 10. In comparison, why not allow 10-year-olds to drive, take drugs, buy guns, or smoke? If not, why are we introducing these additive brain-hacking devices to kids or allowing them into schools where focus and learning are essential?

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers to where we find ourselves. We have mindlessly consumed the bait and are now being reeled in by technology that we believe is necessary for our happiness.

In an insidious twist, our techno-ethos has redefined our notion of happiness. We now seek out the very obsessions that undermine overall satisfaction and eudemonia. We link to “friends” but remain disconnected, join “groups” but feel empty, and scroll endlessly while surrendering our self-control to greedy algorithms.

True progress must endeavor to replace greed with humility and develop an ethos infrastructure that sustains and guides techno-infrastructure. Borrowing from history, these aren’t new technologies; this is a new world.

This new world has the ability to unleash the power of an individual mind or make rot of it.

Although the dilemma seems dire, we have options.

Haidt offers tips for kids, such as banning smartphones before high school, offering flip phones for middle school, preventing social media before 16, and giving kids more independence to encourage off-screen play and activities.

Adults and professionals require intentional intervention. The coaching field is situated to apply evidence of the harm, suggest limits, help us find alternative endeavors to fill our lives and create a balance for becoming whole. We are skilled at supporting new habits and practices that can restore our hacked brains and fragmented attention.

Still, it takes deeper work to recognize the deeper egoic cravings and unexamined motives, intentions, and desires that caused us to consume the bait.

Part 2 of this blog, Embracing the 8 Worldly Winds,will borrow some tools from Eastern wisdom to expand our view beyond transient pleasures. With some awareness and practice, we can cultivate a mind of sustained satisfaction.

Reading Time: 12.5 min. Digest Time: 16.5 min.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.