How the Internet Affects Our Happiness

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

In the age of staying constantly connected to your friends via Facebook, able to look anything up on Google, and presented with an endless array of entertainment options by Netflix or Spotify, have you considered how the Internet impacts your happiness? Do you need to have access to the Internet at home to be happy? Would you be less happy if you didn’t have it? How does the speed of your connectivity affect your overall satisfaction with your life?

While these seem like odd questions to ask yourself, it’s an interesting area of inquiry. Using the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, investigated how happiness is related to Internet connectivity. Cross-referencing Gallup’s Happiness Index with U.S. census data on the percentage of a state’s residents who access the Internet from home, the analysis found that almost 40 percent of the Happiness Index score for a state can be estimated based on the state’s Internet access percentage.

Happiness vs internet access by state

As’s John Dilley notes, the analysis reveals correlation, not causation. He notes that the correlation could occur because a high rate of home Internet access signifies strong, or for other reasons that would require “more study and analysis” to clarify. “But,” Dilley notes, “we can say that although Internet access doesn’t necessarily cause happiness, the two are related.”

The analysis compared the list of the five happiest states with the list of the five most connected states. Two states — North Dakota and Minnesota — landed on both. Meanwhile, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana all ranked highly among the happiest states, but didn’t make the list of most connected states. As New Hampshire, Oregon, and Vermont appeared within the top five connected states, they didn’t make the list of happiest states.

5 happiest states vs 5 most connected states

The study found that the correlation is weaker among states reporting the highest levels of happiness, but did find that three states ranked in the same place on both the happiness list and the connectivity list: Colorado in seventh place, Georgia in 27th, and Alabama in 47th. Two more states were only a number off between the two rankings, and a further 23 states were within five spots and 33 within 10. Only eight states were 20 or more positions away between the two lists. Additionally, three states landed among both the five saddest states and the five least connected states — West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama — suggesting a strong level of correlation between happiness and Internet access.

5 saddest states vs 5 least connected states

Dilley notes that the correlation is not “one-to-one,” and points out that among the eight states that showed differentials of 20 or more positions between their ranks on the happiness and connectivity lists, five showed a far greater degree of happiness than would be expected from their Internet access rate. (Those states were South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Arizona, and Texas.) On the other hand, the other three states with high differentials (Connecticut, Idaho, and Oregon) would have been expected to report higher degrees of happiness than they did, based on their Internet access rank.

5 states with highest difference between happiness and connectivity

While the statistical evidence for a correlation between happiness and Internet access is significant, despite the outliers, the analysis reveals the complexity of trying to ascertain exactly why states with more universal Internet access are happier than those without. It’s worth noting that the census question on whether people have Internet access at home seems like a pretty good indicator of wealth. Wealth, in turn, seems to have a pretty straightforward relationship with the type of happiness that Gallup asked respondents about.

But the rate of Internet access could not only be indicative not only of economic conditions, but could also have an impact on educational opportunity, commerce, and even residents’ social lives. It’s possible that as the Internet becomes more central to the way Americans live and work, rates of Internet access may not be viewed as indicative of anything else, but could be revealed as a direct factor in people’s outlooks on life.

Complicating the ability to find causation is the fact that the happiness data that Gallup collects is more than a simple, single score. Gallup explains that the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index collected data on six different domains:

“Life Evaluation: Present life situation and anticipated life situation

Emotional Health: Daily feelings and mental state

Work Environment: Job satisfaction and workplace interactions

Physical Health: Physical ability to live a full life

Healthy Behavior: Engaging in behaviors that affect physical health

Basic Access: Feeling safe, satisfied, and optimistic within a community”

(The Index has since been updated to reflect five elements of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. About half of the questions in the new index remain unchanged from the original index, which Gallup and Healthways began in 2008 and used in its analysis.)

The questions that Gallup uses to measure a state’s happiness are by nature subjective, and ask respondents to evaluate not only how they feel about their lives in the present, but also how they perceive things will go in the future. States with more negative outlooks, perhaps brought on by tough economic conditions, will score lower on the Happiness Index than states with generally more positive outlooks.

Nonetheless, there’s a correlation between Internet access and happiness — however Americans across different states define happiness — so is there also a correlation between Internet speed and happiness?

Broadview Networks recently mapped the average Internet speed in each state, using data from the Akamai State of the Internet Report. While Broadview found that northeastern states have some of the fastest Internet speeds in the country, many were surprised to find that the state with the fastest average Internet speed was Virginia, with an average of 13.7 mbps. The slowest average Internet speed was Alaska’s at an average of 7 mbps.

Internet speeds by state

While the map was widely used as a starting point for discussions about how slow the U.S.’s average Internet speeds are in comparison with other countries’, that’s a consideration for another story entirely. What’s interesting in the context of the correlation between Internet access and happiness is that the happiest states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Montana — don’t have the fastest Internet speeds. North Dakota comes in at 11th place, with 11.7 mbps. South Dakota comes in at 21st, with 10.8 mbps. Minnesota comes in at 19th place, with 11.1 mbps. Nebraska comes in at 31st place, with 9.5 mbps. Montana comes in at 47th place, with 7.3 mbps. Clearly, you don’t have to clock the fastest average Internet speed to be the happiest state.

Interestingly, there’s more of a relationship between the saddest states and the slowest Internet speeds. The list of the five saddest states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Ohio — shared two in common with the list of the five states with the slowest Internet speeds — Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, and West Virginia.

As with the relationship between Internet access and happiness, the relationship between Internet speed and happiness doesn’t imply causation. But it’s interesting that while the saddest states generally tend toward lower rates of Internet access, the saddest states also tend to have lower Internet speeds. While economic conditions are still likely to factor in, it’s possible that low internet speeds can mimic the effect on people’s education, opportunities, and social life that the lack of home Internet access is likely to have.

While there’s not (yet) enough data out there to figure out the exact relationship between Internet access, Internet speed, and people’s happiness, it’s clear that people’s ability to access and use the Internet has an impact on their outlook and satisfaction with their lives, in an era when Internet connectivity is considered a human right.

It’s also possible, regarding Internet speed, that once you have access and a usefully fast connection, more speed won’t make you happier. Once more research is done, we might find that Internet speed is a resource that impacts people’s happiness in a way that mimics the way their salary impacts their perception of the value of money. Several studies have found that people are happier each time their salary is increased, but only up to a point where more money will no longer make them happier. After they’ve reached that threshold, additional raises and bonuses don’t have the same effect on their happiness, and may not be worth the extra hours that it can take to earn them.

It’s likely that Internet speed follows a similar trajectory. Once people are connected and have a fast enough speed to accomplish the activities that they need and want to, they’ve reached a similar situation to making enough money to cover their costs of living and put money towards the other things that they want to accomplish. An increase above that speed or that salary isn’t going to make them much happier — which could be good news for people with average Internet speeds, and maybe not such great news for all of the providers rushing to implement infrastructure to deliver gigabit Internet speeds.

While customers are likely to pay for the service, thinking it will make them more satisfied with their Internet connection and the activities they can complete with it, it’s only logical that such high speeds will represent just a perk, not a necessity. People with good, but less than lightning-fast Internet speeds won’t be suddenly less happy. Instead, they’ll have what they need — maybe a little more. Especially as illustrated by states with higher happiness scores than their Internet access ranks would suggest, that may just be enough.

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