Reasons to be miserable

Modern life can both add to and subtract from well-being


In 2018, Americans are expected to take 554m business trips—3.1% more than the year before, predicts the Global Business Travel Association, a trade group. That should be a cause for happiness. Business travel reflects economic confidence. And when firms are bullish, the population as a whole tends to share their glee because people are less likely to fret about losing their job. They may also have more money to spend on nice things. 

Yet pity the poor road warrior. Those extra miles will mean more health problems, according to a study by academics at the University of Surrey in Britain and Lund University in Sweden. Among other ailments, the “hypermobile” suffer from premature ageing and an increased risk of heart attacks. They will also succumb to more emotional stress, caused by isolation, loneliness and overwork. In large organisations frequent business travellers can be three times more likely to make a claim on their health insurance for a psychological problem than their desk-bound colleagues. 

When it comes to happiness, the modern world gives with one hand and takes with the other. A fine example is another thing that affects people at work, greater connectivity. By the end of 2018, a third of the world’s population will own a smartphone, forecasts eMarketer, a research firm. And workers now have a dizzying number of ways to remain bonded to their offices. 

Some management scholars argue that this has resulted in a better work-life balance. As small tasks, such as answering an urgent e-mail, can be done quickly at home, workers need spend fewer hours at their desks and can increase their time with the family. Try telling that to spouses whose meals are interrupted by their partners’ constantly bleeping phones. More researchers now tend to warn of the dangers of employees being “always on”. The unread e-mails people carry around in their pocket, or place on their bedside table at night, have become a source of anxiety. A competitive culture, in which employees dash off missives late at night to prove they are still hard at work, does not help.

The evidence clearly suggests that constant connectivity is harming productivity, argues Annie McKee of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “How to be Happy at Work”. When people are unable to switch off from the office, they become less smart and more cynical, she says. No wonder. In a study conducted in 2015 by Erin Reid of Boston University, professional-services firms were unable to tell which of their staff were working 80 hours a week and which 50. 

In 2018 more organisations will take notice. Many bosses realise it is self-defeating to expect 24-hour fealty. Some will give guidelines on out-of-office working. Daimler, a carmaker, has a system that allows workers to delete e-mails automatically when they are on holiday. Today’s younger employees are less likely to put up with a relentless work culture, thinks Ms McKee. 

The importance of work to well-being is well documented. Since 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) has reported on the most common causes of stress among Americans. Until recently, work had always been considered the greatest cause for anxiety. Over the past ten years stress among Americans has gradually decreased; in 2016 it was at its lowest since the survey began. But in 2017 anxiety was on the increase again. This time, the main driver was not work or money, but politics. 

Stress seems to have been exacerbated by social media. Those without social-media accounts worry less about the political future than those with one, according to the APA. Two out of five American adults say that political discussions on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have produced anxiety. According to John Cacioppo, a loneliness expert at the University of Chicago, social media work well for those who already have an abundance of friends and family to interact with. Indeed, for such people, Facebook and the rest are likely to add to their happiness. But they have the opposite effect on the lonely. For them, these are merely a way to watch other people socialising, which entrenches isolation.

Help may be at hand. Pharmacologists are working on drugs that might help the brain overcome the social blocks that reinforce loneliness. It is possible that the initial results of a trial will be released in late 2018. That could be a lifesaver. Several studies have linked the stress of loneliness to early death. Changing that would be a cause for happiness indeed.

VIDEO>> What will be the top ten stand-out moments in 2018?
The World in 2018 brings you tomorrow's water-cooler moments, today

Credit: Lo Cole
You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'