4 Ways Smartphones, the Internet and Social Media Make People Happy

You have a smartphone right?  Me too. Very convenient.

Ever used it to send a text or check the internet? I’m with ya. Or maybe check or post something on Facebook or Twitter? Done that too.

If any of these applies to you or you’re curious about the topic, forge ahead to this edition of….

This is a thought provoker.

This article is about the effects smartphones, the internet and social media have on health. More specifically, how these technologies make people feel good and happy.

Like a child, the research on this subject is young, rapidly growing and curious. And like Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Being the curious evidence-based guy I am, I wanted to find out how all these things affect our health. And, how do they make people happy. Ultimately, I want to share the research with you because I like sharing what I learn in hopes that it may, on some level, improve your life or maybe, offer an interesting perspective of our shared human condition.

To be honest, this is probably the most challenging work I’ve done on for this newsletter yet. (The exception being the Reference Guide of Tested and True Dietary Supplements).

So to make this as simple as possible, I narrowed the happiness and health related research on smartphones, the internet and social media down to 4 things.

4 ways, actually.

4 Ways Smartphones, the Internet and Social Media Make People Happy

Now from the top…

Better buckle up. It’s going to be a ride.

From:PEW Research Center, Numbers Facts and Trends Shaping the World, April 1, 2015. (1)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans are now smartphone owners. And for many people, these devices are a key entry point to the online world.

Most people are checking their phones to go on-line.

What for?

From:PEW Research Center, Numbers Facts and Trends Shaping the World, April 1, 2015. (1)

A majority of smartphone owners use their phone to follow along with breaking news, and to share and be informed about happenings in their local community; smartphones also help users navigate the world around them, from turn by turn driving directions to assistance with public transit.

Got it. Most people use their cell to follow the news, share stuff, navigate, etc. Interestingly, they don’t use them much for emergencies. Only 40% of owners report having used their smartphone for a crisis situation.

There’s got to be more incentive to check a smartphone, right?

There is…

It’s the first of the 4 Ways People Feel Happy…

1. Checking and Searching Feels Good. It’s Exciting…initially.

No matter what people look for on their phones, the brain likes looking. It rewards itself for doing so. In the searching process, the brain becomes more active as it anticipates a reward.

From: Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.(2)

One study showed that the brain is more active when people are anticipating a reward rather than receiving one

The brain is more active when people check their phones.

So what? Big deal.

It is a big deal because the process of searching is paralleled by a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain. Dopamine makes people feel enjoyment, pleasure, and therefore motivates people to seek out certain behaviors. Dopamine makes people want to seek more.

Hmmm. How so?

From: Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.(2)

The latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes people you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases people’s general level of arousal and goal-directed behavior. From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps people motivated to move through the world, learn, and survive. It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes people curious about ideas and fuels their searching for information.

And, when people search and find attractive images, more dopamine is released in the same reward pathway of the brain that is stimulated when people eat yummy food, make money, have sex or use cocaine.


Yup. Looking at attractive images online causes the brain to release dopamine and it feels good. This keeps the brain wanting to search more. Gives rationale as to why Instagram (image related site) came into existence several years after Facebook launched, doesn’t it?

More about dopamine…

It’s the feel good chemical in the brain. It drives action.

From: ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 January 2013.

Dopamine regulates the motivation to act.

The brain sends signals to make people feel good and happy during the search and motivates them to search more on their phones, online, on their Facebook newsfeed, etc.

May, in part, explain why many big corporations provide phones to employees. Employees with cell phones are then connected with work, everywhere.

This connection to a smartphone deeply affects the brain.

Just how deep?

fMRI brains scans show something surprising when people use their cell phones.

From: Brainwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy (3)

What was more surprising, though, was that there was also a flurry of activation in the brain’s insula—which is connected to feelings of love and compassion.  In short, these participants didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction to their iPhones. What the sights and sounds of a ringing or vibrating cell phone did reveal, however, was that our study subjects loved their iPhones; their brains responded to the sound of the phones the same way they would respond to their boyfriend, girlfriend, niece, nephew, or family pet. In short, it may not be addiction in the medical sense, but it is true love.

Yes. You read that correctly. The brains of people love cell phones. A bit of a suggestion that people love cell phones.

So just how are all these good feelings with cell phones affecting people’s brains?

The intial good feelings can lead to a dopamine-induced loop, which is hard to escape.

Researchers say the dopamine-induced loop has two parts.

Part 1. Dopamine feels good. It feeds the seeking.


Part 2. Dopamine rewards the seeking.

The dopamine-induced loop makes it tough for people to stop checking their cell phones. And the more people check, the more the brain takes shape, like a muscle in training.

(For more on muscle toning, click here)

In fact, the more people think and do anything, the more the brain takes shape to “wire the way it’s fired.”  This is neuroplasticity = the capacity of the nervous system to develop new neuronal connections. The more the brain performs an action, the more the networking of the brain takes the shape to perform it more efficiently.

From: A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain (4)

Experience, thoughts, actions, and emotions actually change the structure of our brains. By viewing the brain as a muscle that can be weakened or strengthened, we can exercise our ability to determine who we become...

So repeatedly checking the phone is shaping our brains to be really good at doing so.  And any random act, like phone checking, practiced daily eventually becomes a habit, an effortless one.


From: A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain (4)

The brain has a tremendous ability to compensate and rewire with practice…our brains are wonderfully plastic throughout adulthood.

The more people use cell phones and social media, the stronger the dopamine-induced feedback loop reinforces the neural pathways to form in the brain.

Know who else likes that?

Internet companies…

Here’s a familiar few…take note of the similarity as you read them.

Find Your Fit with Fitbit. (Fitbit.com)

Search on Google. (Google.com)

Find, Shop & Buy on Amazon. (Amazon.com)

See who’s online now. (Match.com)

Discover your ethnicity.  (Ancestry.com).

Find the people and posts that matter to you most. (Facebook.com).

Notice a trend?

 You sure do.

Every company tagline shown is based on a foundation of searching. Searching feels good. Internet companies know searching feels good and some of them know how to take advantage of this knowledge.

Know How?

By tracking clicks.

By Way of: The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think(5)

Sites all over the internet are tracking people’s clicks and literally feed people’s minds with stuff they think those people like.  

Online companies are tracking. In some ways, they are filling people’s phones and monitors with what they already like. This feeds the dopamine-induced loop and reinforces it. Over time, this repetitive pattern in the brain seems to brainwash people. The brainwash can gradually lead to addiction.

Addiction to the Internet and Social Media?

Yup.  Over 5,000 books suggest so.

But, addiction seems to be a term people throw around without evidence. I want to know what a research expert would say.

Is there really an addiction on a clinical level?  (Clinical, meaning, the level where research looks at the treatment of actual patients rather than theoretical or lab studies.)

Simply asked, are people truly addicted to Facebook?

From: UConn Magazine:  According to David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UConn School of Medicine and founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. (6)

Studies show that only 6% of people are clinically diagnosed as compulsive users (of facebook).

(To see a simple survey scale to learn if a person has an addiction to Facebook, click here.)

In addition to good feelings that arise with searching on Facebook, social media sites encourage people to express themselves. And there’s something that feels good about that too.

There’s something therapeutic to opening up.

That brings us to #2…

2. Expressing Feelings on Social Media Helps People Regulate Their Emotions

Some people seem to tell their entire life stories on social media sites like Facebook.

There’s reasons for it.

From:Social Science Research Network. (7)

Some people may tend to be socially apprehensive… and they may particularly prefer online expression because it is less threatening. With such emotional writing paired with the potential to receive social support helps people repair well-being after negative experiences. These results shed light on a motivator for, and benefit of, online social networking, while also demonstrating how the social sharing of emotion can boost well-being.

The online sharing helps some people manage their emotions. Plus, Dr. James Pennebaker’s pioneering work suggests that opening up via writing is very healthy.

From: Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (8)

Whereas inhibition is potentially harmful, confronting our deepest thoughts and feelings can have remarkable short and long-term health benefits. Confession, whether by writing or talking, can neutralize many of the problems of inhibition.  Furthermore, writing or talking about upsetting things can influence our basic values, our daily thinking patterns, and feelings about ourselves.  In short, there appears to be something akin to an urge to confess. Nor disclosing our thoughts and feelings can be unhealthy.  Divulging them can be healthy.


From: Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (8)

Studies indicated that writing about traumatic experiences was beneficial depending on how people wrote them… Everyone who wrote about traumas described the study in positive terms.  More important, approximately 80% explained the value of the study in terms of insight. Rather than explaining that it felt good to get negative emotions off their chests, respondents noted how they understood themselves better…our thought processes can heal.

Articulating feelings with writing has a therapeutic effect. It also leads to greater self-knowledge and self-awareness. And the therapeutic effects of sharing emotions get amplified when others validate each other’s feelings and experiences.

Takes us to #3…

3. People Receive Support on Social Media

When people express their feelings on social media sites, they often receive peer support. And social support has HUGE implications on our health and well-being.

From: Science Daily: British Sociological Association (9)

Facebook provided some [people] with a less threatening means to communicate, gain and give peer support when ‘face-to-face’ communication was too intense.

For example, imagine for a second that a person makes a Facebook post about their bad day. Some friends may offer supportive comments. The supportive comments buffer the difficult emotions. In so doing, a social network of support develops. The recipient feels better and is encouraged to share more because they feel good.

Social support is essential for happiness and health. Whether or not it is in person face to face or online, people’s perception of social support is essential to well-being and even longevity..

From: Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live (10)

Those of us who rate our social connections as relatively high have, on average, more positive emotional lives, are more physically healthy, and live longer than those who rate them low.

Social support predicts longevity too.

From: Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live (10)

Women with smaller social networks had a mortality rate nearly double that of those with high social ties.  For men, it was even more striking – men low in social ties died at two to three times the rate of men with strong social connections.

Social support also predicts heart-disease deaths.

From: Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live (10)

The risk of dying from heart disease alone, as well as from all other causes, was 1.3 times higher among those with fewer interactions with their social network, compared to those with more interactions.

Men with fewer social connections were approximately 1.5 times more likely to die from heart disease and all other causes than were those with more social bonds.

Social support also predicts heart-attack recovery.

From: Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live (10)

During that time, those who lacked emotional support had nearly three times the death rate of those with emotional support. The data analysis took into account severity of disease, smoking, and other factors.

And social involvement protects against the common cold!

From: Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live (10)

The group with the lowest level of social involvement was over four times more likely to develop colds and cold symptoms.

Without question, social support occurs on Facebook and other social media sites. It makes people feel good and it’s healthy to feel supported.

But what does it feel like when people can’t find their cell phone, have an important call dropped, get kicked off line, or lose a connection within their social support network?  No warm and fuzzies there.

Takes us to #4.


4. People Get to Control Their SmartPhones, Their Internet Adventure and Social Media Experience.

Control is Rewarding for Confidence and is a Wellspring for Happiness & Health.

With smartphones, the internet and social media, people can exercise control in lots of ways.

Exercising control is important for happiness and health. For example, people can adjust their smartphone settings the way they like them. They control what’s on their phones via apps, how their phone sounds via ring tones and how their phone is protected with a variety of cell phone protectors.

And on Facebook, people can modify their settings in hundreds of ways. People can share thoughts, images, comments, and likes. They can request friends and unfriend people too.

(For the top reasons for Facebook unfriending, click here.)

When people have a smartphone, they are in control of it. When people are on the internet, they choose their own adventure, and when engaged on social media, they have power over their page.

It feels good for people to exercise control.

FROM: Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller) (11)

People find it gratifying to exercise control – not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen – is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.

Sounds like control is an innate part of the human brain, doesn’t it?And when people have smartphones, the Internet and their social media site, they not only can feel good, experience love in their brain, express their feelings, and get social support, but it also gives them a sense of control.

But, what about when people lose control?

Then, what?  How does it affect health?

FROM: Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller) (11)

The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.

Having a sense of control buffers people from helplessness, despair and depression. It affects well-being.


FROM: Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller) (11)

Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having any at all.

And just how powerful is people’s desire for control?

Control can be so rewarding that people in control believe they can control the uncontrollable.

Sounds crazy? But it’s true.

Harvard college Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert has the research that says…

FROM: Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller) (11)

People bet more money on games when their opponents seem incompetent than competent – as though they believed they could control the random drawing of cards from a deck and thus take advantage of a weak opponent.


FROM: Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller) (11)

People feel more certain that they will win a lottery ticket if they can control the number on their ticket and they feel more confident that they will win a dice toss if they can throw the dice themselves.

Just think of how this relates to the Fantasy Football Explosion.

An online game people can sign-up for with their smartphones. Fantasy Football companies are banking on it.

From: CNBC online (12)

The privately owned fantasy sports company Draftkings reported earning over $300 million last year.


From: Forbes /Sports Money (13)

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there are now 33 million people playing fantasy football each year.

Based on the research, we can see what’s going on in the brain. Fantasy Footballers are on their smartphones (love in the brain). They search for players they want (searching feels good). They pick the players they want (feeling in control leads to a belief that they can control the uncontrollable). And if things go well for them, they can win money (feels good as dopamine releases in the brain upon winning).

Searching smartphones, the internet and social media sites makes people happy because it feels good. People’s brains are inherently wired to enjoy searching. Dopamine rewards the search.

Now for a quick wrap-up…


  1. Searching on a Smartphone, the Internet, or Social Media feels good because dopamine fuels the search and rewards it. Dopamine makes people feel good and drives action.
  2. Opening up on social media sites helps people manage emotions. A therapeutic effect can be experienced for people who carefully disclose traumatic life events via writing.
  3. Getting social support online has healthy effects for the recipient. Social support plays a very important role in predicting longevity in many ways from heart disease to the common cold.
  4. People are born with a penchant for control and exercising it taps a wellspring of happiness. Losing control can lead to dissatisfaction, despair and depression. When people perceive they are in control during gambling or gaming, their perception of reality becomes skewed as overconfidence emerges.

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(1) PEW Research Center, Numbers Facts and Trends Shaping the World, April 1, 2015.

(2) Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.

(3) Brainwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy (3)

(4) A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain

(5) The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think

(6) UConn Magazine:  According to David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UConn School of Medicine and founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, Spring 2015.

(7) Social Science Research Network. Berger, Jonah A. and Buechel, Eva, Facebook Therapy? Why Do People Share Self-Relevant Content Online? (February 29, 2012).

(8) Pennebaker, PhD, James, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

(9) British Sociological Association. “Facebook use can worsen, as well as improve, mental health conditions.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 April 2015.

(10) Emotional Longevity: What REALLY Determines How Long You Live

(11) Stumbling on Happiness (National Best Seller)

(12) CNBC.com. DraftKings, FanDuel make millions, and give them away, as fantasy revs up.  

(13) Forbes/SportsMoney. The Fantasy Football Explosion  

About Dave Barnas, M.S., CES, NASM-CPT

Dave is the true health guy. He is the founder and owner of True Health Unlimited, LLC, a personal health and fitness company in Tolland, CT & Wellness Writers, a subscription wellness newsletter service that incorporates live & virtual wellness workshops for companies across New England. Dave earned both a Bachelor's (1998) and Master's Degree (2000) in Nutritional Science from the University of Connecticut, and also holds certifications as a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer, National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America Group Instructor, and Nutrition Specialist. He's also the lead author for four published works. Dave has over 20 years of combined experience in nutrition counseling, dietary supplement advising, personal training, corrective exercise training, health coaching and public speaking. In addition, he's spent over 25 years studying spirituality, meditation, and personal growth strategies. Dave's clients are all ages: youth, college championship level athletes, folks in their retired years, and everywhere in between. He's worked with three of the nation's leading physicians as a dietary supplement advisor and been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Yale University, UConn, St. Joseph College and various church groups, health clubs, and high schools. In 2013, he was invited to Whole Foods Market to share his Real Food Therapy Guide. And in 2015, Dave's funny "Snowga" (yoga in the snow) video caught the attention of The National Weather Channel, who aired it to shake off cabin fever and bring laughter. In 2016, Dave & Hollie (his wife) founded Wellness Writers and deliver evidence-based Wellness E-newsletters to spread a message of health and happiness to various businesses throughout the US. Dave currently serves as a personal trainer in Tolland as well as a wellness coach and writer for several businesses, gyms and wellness facilities throughout the US.

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