From flint to digital and from competency to happiness

May 03, 2023

We could begin this free essay by stating, in a purely speculative exercise, that in the near, distant, or extremely distant future technology will be one of the factors that will save humanity. Just as, putting the focus now on the past, throughout history, technology has evolved us as individuals, groups, teams, families or countries as well as, many times, it has saved us individually or collectively from other beings, human or otherwise, when those beings were threats to us and ours. It seems clear to us that the history of our sustainability as a species has been based on the greater or lesser technological evolution that we have had access to either as individuals, groups, teams, families or countries. Paradoxically, technological evolution has increased exponentially the risk of our species disappearing, as well as making other species disappear.

Linking technological evolution to the possibility of continuity or discontinuity of life as the most extreme idea, on the other hand, promotes the need to include in the discussion other issues such as those related to quality of life, well-being, happiness, and self-fulfillment.

If we focus on the past we will certainly find examples where technology has brought more quality of life, more well-being, more happiness and greater self-fulfillment to some individuals, groups, teams, families, states, nations or countries. However, paradox has always been present in our journey, so often the technology that promoted something good for some, will have promoted enormous unhappiness, decreased well-being, quality of life and the impossibility of self-fulfillment for others.

As for the future - which is always susceptible to planning and construction - it can be the same as the past or, if we wish, different from it. The idea behind this last statement is that in the future no individual, group, team, family, or country will cause suffering, by using technology for profit, to any being, human or otherwise, as well as preserve the planet. In other words, that technology be used to promote positive emotional states that quality of life, well-being, happiness, and self-fulfillment have at their base and that, on the other hand, it promotes the sustainability of the planet.

At this point and being aware that we are using the term technology in a broad and abstract sense, it is time to specify what we intend to analyze, even if briefly. We will freely discuss social networks, which, by the way, fit into the broad concept of technology and its relations with happiness.

Being happy is the ultimate goal of any person and is an achievement that stems from self-responsibility and is experienced internally. Happiness results in a state of harmony with the absence of inappropriate conflict and peaceful relationships, and is primarily the result of structured and effective relationships

Human beings are social beings and therefore need to interact with other human beings, be they friends, colleagues, relatives, more distant relatives or even strangers. From the perspective of the use of social networks, in a first instance, it may be that what matters is to interact, in whatever way, with or without quality in the relationship, fighting the possible other side of the coin: mental suffering due to loneliness and/or depression.

Studies about this topic linking social media use to happiness have found that many people started this "surfing" because they were already feeling anxious, lonely and or depressed and were eager to get started. Other studies have shown that many users used social media communication as an alternative way to forget about their personal challenges. In these cases, we would say that spending a lot of time online would be considered the symptom rather than the cause of some sort of mental distress. This search for happiness and pleasure often coincides with momentary and ephemeral feelings, dependent on external factors and, for this very reason, short-lived, not contributing to overcome those symptoms of loneliness and/or depression.

In addition to these issues related to loneliness and depression, there are currently great debates about other harmful effects of the use of social networks on people's well-being. It is quite common to hear news of cybercrimes in which people are defrauded through social networks, as well as various forms of bullying and other crimes such as slander or defamation. These evils occur constantly, precisely because of the ease with which offenders hide behind profiles that are often fake.

On the other hand, social networks have also allowed the growing promotion of a culture of perfection, in which people share with all their followers the idyllic places they have traveled, their sculptural bodies, the radical activities they practice, the delicacies they cook worthy of a professional chef, among other achievements worthy of boasting. Ideas disseminated widely, out of a need for affirmation and acceptance, despite often being artificially created by the authors of the content themselves.

There are also already identified disorders linked to social networks, such as FOMO - Fear of Missing Out, which leads to obsessive behaviors of permanent connection and consequent loss of connection to the real world.

All the crimes mentioned, as well as the idea of manipulated perfection and the pathologies identified, have incredibly significant impacts on people, causing feelings of inferiority, sadness, and depression, sometimes leading, in extreme cases, to suicide. However, we believe that these malicious actions and their results do not originate in social networks, but rather in the inappropriate behavior of those who promote them, as well as, on the other hand, perhaps in most cases, in the victims' lack of skills to manage the consequences caused by those actions.

On the other hand, from a more positive perspective we can say that the use of social networks to establish connections and communication in a balanced way can be beneficial, promoting immediate friendships and although positive, not as deeply rooted as they should be, but rather related to the pursuit of happiness and immediate and painless pleasure (hedonic happiness).

Hedonic happiness is related to the search for immediate pleasure and the reduction of suffering by obtaining external and instant gratification. Examples of these gratifications include material goods, food, drink, status, sex, power, money, and the acceptance and sharing of our ideas expressed in "posts", by our "friends", among other types of reactions to our intervention in the networks. This kind of happiness is temporally limited. Over time, if we don't have a new external motive (read, for example, a new "like") to make us happy, we will pass to the state of temporary unhappiness, since we want more of that pleasure. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation. On the other hand, when we get that "like", after some time, everything goes back to the same as before, the same routine and the same dissatisfactions. And the question that arises is: is the problem the lack of "likes" or the unrealistic expectations that we sometimes create about what we really need to feel good and happy?

From another perspective, eudaimonic happiness comes from the search for a more meaningful life and is related to a deeper happiness. Some examples of this type of happiness are personal achievements, social contribution through acts of kindness, the duty of care especially towards fragile beings, human or otherwise, and the building of effective interpersonal relationships in the family, and here the use of social networks can have a positive impact, if used in favor of creating positive emotional states in those with whom we interact, without them having to reciprocate behaviors to satisfy us in return.

Identifying the importance of the so-called eudaimonic happiness implies becoming aware that social networks have been allowing the best that exists in human beings to flourish, making it possible for families from faraway places on the planet to come together, thus enhancing acts of love. Nowadays it is possible, for example, for a grandfather living in Australia to accompany and participate in the growth of his grandson living in Portugal. This reality has changed the concept of homesickness, reducing the sadness associated with long absences and goodbyes.

In the search for a more meaningful life, technology has also allowed the creation of groups of individuals with similar interests, in which knowledge is exchanged and joint activities are shared, resulting in the creation of bonds that can be long-lasting, thus enhancing well-being. We've all heard of the 6 a.m. running group, or the healthy eating group, among many others, which allow the sharing of good habits and the necessary connection to maintain them.

It is also important to mention the waves of support and solidarity that are boosted by social networks, and through them it is often possible to raise enough people to clean beaches, or to gather a significant amount of money to buy medicine or other goods to help a sick person. It is also through these networks that people become aware of situations that were previously unknown, such as a rare disease.

When it comes to this kind of happiness people understand what really brings them more lasting satisfaction, often discovering their purpose in life. Happiness is not just the constant smile, the permanent laugh, or the savings of "likes". It involves discovering your essence, your "authentic self," what makes sense and is the root of life.

The most lasting happiness is precisely that which results from the activities we engage in the most and put the energy of our deepest will into. That's why experiences of immediate pleasure last like flashes and end quickly, and don't stay as vividly in our memories as do the more rewarding experiences connected with life's great achievements.

To achieve this kind of eudaimonic happiness, one needs to develop ethical, psychological, and emotional skills, such as self-awareness or self-knowledge. Happiness, in its deepest sense, is a matter of choice. And that choice should be based on the personal meanings and beliefs that each person has developed throughout life about what it means to be happy. The skills mentioned above will enhance and facilitate the identification of these paths of broadly rewarding purpose. Seligman argued that a meaningful life with perfect emotional well-being can do without hedonic pleasures and engaging activities and can do so because that life is full of purpose which helps increase levels of happiness

Communication on social networks and its association with emotional well-being can be positive and negative. The positive association encourages increased virtual friendships, while negative associations may lead to decreased levels of self-esteem due to social comparison which may indicate a deficit of the above mentioned skills.

Regardless of all of the above, it can be argued and has been proven that human brains inherit a strong inclination toward relationships and are programmed to enjoy happiness. In addition to this more physical nature, there are neurotransmitters that are automatically released within the human body, for example oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.

Any activity that influences the release of neurotransmitters can improve mood and increase levels of happiness and pleasure in humans. Interpersonal relationships on social media can promote happiness and pleasure in a user by releasing those or other neurotransmitters. All activities, from passive curiosity, to rewarding notifications in the form of likes, comments and shares, release neurotransmitters that generally impact positively on the user's emotional state. However, the fact that we remember the positive impact that interaction on social networks can have on us, does not mean that we want to forget that often navigation in the "ocean of networks" can cause distress and consequent excessive production of cortisol, which can lead users in the short, medium or long term to the web of depression and uncontrolled anxiety. In any case, and as we have already argued in this article, we believe that the lack of control that distress predicts means a lack of skills that promote self-controlled behavior in order to promote a balance between real life and digital life.

In conclusion, we can see that social networks and technology are at the service of the human being and as such promote and induce the behaviors and feelings that people want to develop. Happiness is achieved through a constant and daily work that each individual does, depending exclusively on himself, and, as such, he has at his disposal powerful tools that can facilitate its construction.

All the socially inappropriate actions and negative feelings that we associate with social networks today already existed before social networks. Technology only enhances them, by facilitating the processes and the speed of dissemination. However, we always have the other side of the coin, this facilitation of processes and speed, are also applied to positive actions and feelings.

What we can talk about is the urgent need to develop skills so that each person knows how to make the right choices and can manage emotionally, in order not to allow the negative influence of social networks.

Today it is much easier to see a child interacting early with technologies than having contact with personal development tools. From an early age, it is very important to develop the fundamental skills for each individual to find their way to happiness, otherwise they may develop the behaviors that lead to social networks being seen as one of the evils of today's societies. We cannot put the responsibility, in the wrong places, just because we don't want to take the trouble to develop ourselves so that the technological side of communication on social networks does not override the human side of interaction. If a user ignores the human side of interaction and relies more on the technological side, they risk missing the reality of life causing negative impact on their emotional well-being. This technological generation must keep in mind that virtual life is a complement to real life, not a replacement product for that life.

The positive or negative effect of communication through the use of social media on an individual's emotional well-being depends solely on oneself as to how and for what one uses social media.

The future will be the result of what we do in the present and the decision is up to each one of us. In the past flint technology was used for purposes such as fun, development of skills (training), to kill other beings or humans, and the basis of these actions was usually based on planning, action, checking and improvement. What about digital technology, does it have to be different?

We dare say yes. It will be different, and human beings will develop behavioral skills that will allow them to use technology in favor of a differentiating and long-awaited purpose: to establish a new humanity, the happy humanity.


António Paulo Teixeira