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How Understanding Happiness Will Be Crucial to Developing 'Good' Technologies

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SCIENCE DISCOVERIES OF 2013
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Co-authored by Dan Faggella, an entrepreneur and writer with a masters degree in Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania

Ask most inventors why their creating something new, and you'll often hear them speak to "making the world a better place." Certainly some people like creation in and of itself, but very few creatives would tell you that they don't care at all about how they effect the world and other people in it. As human beings, connection and relationships comprise the largest overall factor in our happiness and well-being, and the beautiful thing about intending to help others is that it makes us feel great ourselves.

However, how would we quantify "making the world better"? Certainly, not all technological advances are innately beneficial to the world; and it doesn't seem like a safe bet to posit that making a process more efficient or a program more capable will necessarily impact the happiness of those who use it in any meaningful way.

The relationship between technology and psychology has never been greater than it is today, and this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the coming decades have to offer. With Google Glass and other forms of augmented and virtual reality going mainstream, and brain-machine interface technologies allowing users to telepathically control apps, photos, and more -- the cross-over of the neural and digital worlds is fact, not fiction.

The question is: Will the world be any "better" because of it? If a technology is used and adopted, does it inherently mean that it has benefit those who've taken it up?

Though utilitarian calculations are difficult to make, it seems that our aggregate human efforts to "better the world" through technology might benefit from interdisciplinary views on it's consequences, ramifications, and effects.

With the "benefit" of emerging technology certainly being an interdisciplinary understanding, it seems that the perspectives of psychology might be particularly applicable to determining how technology impact our well-being. Understanding the constituents of human fulfillment seems to be an apt starting place for "better"-ing humanity. It's argued that we as human beings take nearly all of our actions so that we can have a desirable result on our own sense of well-being, yet an understanding of the science of happiness and well-being seems lacking in the creation of the technologies that will shape the future of human experience.

The field of positive psychology provides us with some critical insights as to what lies behind the core of human well-being. The quality of close relationships, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a capacity for gratitude all factor into the "recipe" of what might comprise "happiness," and it's interesting to posit how some of these components might be influenced by emerging tech.

We might first look at technologies that enable communications. It's been stated that the reason sites like Facebook are "addictive" is because of their ties to the relationships in our lives. How much more addictive might social media become when augmented reality becomes ubiquitous -- and screens are as close to us as a pair of glasses, or contact lenses?

Mindfulness and a capacity to experience and appreciate the present also seems to correlate with well-being. As we enter a world of "the internet of things," might we be surrounded by flashing lights and beeping noises in a deluge that could be likened to noise pollution? Some companies are aiming to encourage this sense of calm and presence through the aide of technology, with IndieGoGo's success story of the "Muse" headband being one of them.

All in all, psychology alone may not be able to provide all of the answers about how emerging technologies might hurt or harm us in the short term, but it's a field that undeniably can help the conversation. It should also be noted that even with a firm grasp of the constituents of fulfillment, creating "good" technology (or determining its aggregate impact) can't be guaranteed. As technology becomes increasingly immersive and defining of our day-to-day life, how might we keep the psychological impact on well-being in mind in the design and creation of products, programs, and the policies that influence them?

Dan runs TechEmergence.com, a media site dedicated to the overlap of technology, psychology, and impact on society.

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