Why staring at a screen at work all day is making you so unhappy

Bill Hinton | Getty Images

The seamlessness of switching between your work computer, home laptop and cellphone can be really convenient. Perhaps too convenient.

This continuous exposure to screens at work and at home not only has the power to seriously strain your eyes, but it can also make you really unhappy.

During a TED Talk earlier this year, New York University's Stern School of Business marketing professor and psychologist Adam Alter presented research which showed the online tools we spend the most time using don't make us happy.

Highlighting data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Alter demonstrates how the average 24-hour workday has looked about the same over the past ten years: We sleep between seven and eight hours a day, work between eight and nine hours a day and take care of "survival activities" like eating and bathing for about three hours a day.

The rest of the day — roughly five hours — is our personal time, made up of hobbies, close relationships, creativity and reflecting on whether "our lives have been meaningful," Alter says during his TED Talk, which has gotten over a million views.

"We get some of that from work as well," Alter explains, but most of our most memorable experiences come from those few hours of personal time.

Alter notes that since 2007, we have increasingly spent our free time in front of screens, leaving only a sliver of time without any screen time.

Screenshot from Adam Alter's 2017 TED Talk

He says that people feel good about apps which focus on relaxation, exercise, weather, reading, education and health, spending an average of nine minutes a day on these.

On the flip side, people feel less happy while using dating, social networking, gaming, entertainment, news and web browsing apps, yet spend 27 minutes a day on each of these. The reason behind our seemingly mindless scrolling is the lack of a stopping cue, or "a signal that it's time to move on, to do something new, to do something different," Alter says.

"We're spending three times longer on the apps that don't make us happy," he says. "That doesn't seem very wise."

Anyone who has gone on a Netflix binge can relate: After several hours of viewing episodes of your favorite show, you might receive a pop-up message that asks, "Continue watching?" That's a stopping cue to make sure you actually want to keep going.

"But the way we consume media today is such that there are no stopping cues," Alter says. "The news feed just rolls on, and everything's bottomless: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, text messaging, the news."

To encourage a step back from this endless loop of checking emails and social media, Alter points to the late "low-tech parent" Steve Jobs, who once told The New York Times how he limited the amount of time his children spent with technology.

Notably, France has attempted to limit time spent looking at screens by banning after-work email.

Alter admits this isn't the easiest problem to address, but it's worth it. "At first, it hurts. I had massive FOMO," Alter says. "But what happens is, you get used to it.

"You overcome the withdrawal the same way you would from a drug, and what happens is, life becomes more colorful, richer, more interesting — you have better conversations," he says. "You really connect with the people who are there with you."

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