Can technology make us happy?


Daniel Gilbert is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research with Tim Wilson on "affective forecasting" investigates how and how well people can make predictions about the emotional impact of future events.

Dan has won numerous awards for his teaching and research—from the Guggenheim Fellowship to the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology. However, he says that his greatest accomplishment is that he appears just before Dizzy Gillespie on the list of Most Famous High School Dropouts.

Dan's research has been covered by The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Money, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Scientific American, Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, and many others.

  • Transcript


Question: Can technology make us happy?

Dan Gilbert: I think technology could be quite relevant to our happiness.  That is, we could use technology to improve it.  But I don’t think we do.  And I think the reason we don’t is we don’t really know what to aim for.  We don’t know what kinds of things make us happy. And so we don’t invent machines that will help us do them.  Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet to create a technology that allows you to spend more time with your family.  And yet this is something we know makes people, in general, happier.  We could use technology to our advantage, but I don’t think we necessarily do.

 Now there’s another kind of technology that could influence happiness, and that’s technology that influences brain states directly.  Happiness is, of course, just something your brain is doing.  It’s an experience you have because your brain – your neurons – are in a certain dance.  It’s possible that we will have technological interventions that will enable your neurons to do that dance without having to experience something in the world that makes that happen.  Right now we have such interventions.  We have drugs; but they’re very brute, you know?  You take a happy pill, it does a whole lot more than make you feel a little better.  It changes, you know … it interferes with cognitive abilities.  It can make you dizzy.  It can make you nauseous.  It’s conceivable that in the future, we’ll have technologies that simply will increase your happiness. The question is whether we’ll want to use them.  It’s a very … I … and I’m not for it or against it, but it’s a very important decision to make.  Do we want to disassociate happiness from its usual antecedents?  Do we want people to be able to be happy without doing the things that we usually think of us as earning happiness?  It’s a great question, and one we’re definitely going to have to answer.