Can Wireless Sensor Technology Make Us Happier People?

Dan Taylor/CC BY 3.0

I've been contemplating this question a lot lately: How happy does technology actually make me? What does it really do for me, and what do I give up in return for easy access to information and constant connection to everyone else online?

A great article from IEEE Spectrum addresses this very concept by exploring how we can use technology to become happier. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, a major buzz topic was the connected fitness device, and internet of things that monitors your workouts, eating habits, and overall health, and in this would help to make you a healthier person. That might be just the baby steps for a much more involved technology that researchers think could lead to greater happiness. The authors of the article write that similar to analyzing everything about your body and routine during the day to suggest areas of improvement and thus greater health, technology can analyze workplace habits and interactions to improve life in the office:

The same kind of technology that’s helping people improve their personal lives can yield positive results in the workplace: better communication, better teamwork, and greater job satisfaction on all levels of the organization. Perhaps most intriguing, it can help workers achieve that satisfying feeling of being fully immersed in, energized by, and happy about whatever they are doing. Seem too good to be true? In fact, it’s perfectly possible, and it isn’t magic. But to achieve the best results takes the proper mix of engineering and psychology.

The article goes on to note that MIT's professor Alex Pentland was in on the early research of using wearable sensors to gather data such as the pitch of someone's voice or their body movements to determine social patterns. Recently, the possibility of such sensors are closer to reality as devices are smaller, batteries last longer, and wireless sensors are more adept.

Now, a wireless device by Hitachi worn as a lanyard can detect body movements as slight as head nods or finger-pointing, voice level, ambient air temperature, lighting, and other conditions in one's social environment. The badge can then download the day's information to be analyzed at the maker's data center where reports are provided back to the wearer.

By combining the more concrete data gathered with the field of positive psychology for understanding the interactions, researchers think that one day (and not too far from now) we really could have technology that watches us and tells us how to be happier in daily life.

The whole article is fascinating and I suggest reading through the entire piece. But there's one thought I returned to over and over again during my read of the article: do we really have to rely on technology for this? Or could similar solutions lie in the age-old "technology" of mindfulness? Why are we turning to technology for things that are within our grasp for figuring out right now?

My thought is that mindfulness -- taking a moment to clear your mind, to pay attention to what is going on in the moment, to address how your body is reacting to an emotional situation in the moment, and to pay closer attention to the subtleties of others' body language and word choice -- is all hard work. We avoid it because it is hard work. And then, when we wonder how we might be made happier, we turn to technology to make it "easier" for us to understand even though creating the technology to do this is actually incredibly complicated. We're making a straightforward (though tough) path to happiness far more convoluted through a reliance on technology. And perhaps to no better outcome than we would get through doing the work of mindfulness.

The authors write:

Of course, no “happiness” sensor will ever be perfect. But it doesn’t need to be. When the thermometer was invented four centuries ago, it was very imprecise, and yet it still yielded valuable information. Over time its design was refined, and now it’s indispensable. We believe happiness sensors will follow a similar evolution. Although there will always be a degree of uncertainty in assessing people’s mental states, wearable sensors are already better than traditional tools for gauging well-being, being relatively unobtrusive, effortless to use, and relatively inexpensive to manufacture.

Better than traditional tools such as, say, paying attention? I may sound like the cliché grandparent here, but I must wonder about the state of our world when we are relying on wearable sensors to tell us our own and others' "mental states" -- how disconnected will we have become from one another when we need technology to tell us about our own human interactions, or when we are happy at work?

Can technology make us happier? Researchers sure seem to think so. But I still have serious doubts that technology can solve an issue that is so wholly human. After all, we still have to act on any information the technology provides us. In the end, it's still our own job to make ourselves happy.

Tags: Technology

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