bench

A women sits alone on a park bench in Encinitas, California, Oct. 7, 2019.

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Mike Blake/Reuters

People are used to technology changing how they live their lives — whether it’s opening up new ways to travel, giving us access to information, or revolutionizing the way we communicate. But is tech changing how we feel too?

According to Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez, the authors of “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter,” and professors at Weber State University in Utah, technological innovations have been influencing how we perceive many emotions, including loneliness.

“While [in the past] people didn’t enjoy lonesomeness, they thought sometimes it was [divinely] ordained,” said Matt, who studies the history of emotions.

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Not only were we once better at accepting loneliness, we used to have different terminology for it, according to Matt. She said that what people today are missing is the distinction between loneliness and solitude.

“Increasingly, we’ve dispensed with the notion of solitude. We use the word much less today than our ancestors did, so the positive connotations of aloneness are disappearing.”

 Susan Matt, co-author of “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter” 

“One was painful, the other was valuable,” Matt said. “Increasingly, we’ve dispensed with the notion of solitude. We use the word much less today than our ancestors did, so the positive connotations of aloneness are disappearing.”

As people began moving to cities for work, they started to notice loneliness more and more. Loneliness clubs suddenly began springing up across the country. People began to study the issue, and there were conferences held about it. A loneliness scale was even created to measure the feeling.

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“All of these developments pathologized the condition of being alone, and turned it into a sickness in a way that wasn’t perceived in the 19th century,” Fernandez said.

In their research, Matt and Fernandez have also looked at how technology has impacted our views about monotony. The term “boredom” didn’t exist until the mid-19th century, and was once mostly a concern for the upper echelons of society.

"Most of American society thought [it was] immune or vaccinated against ennui,” Fernandez explained, “because there was so much work to do in America that there wasn’t time to be bored.”

But as America industrialized, jobs became more monotonous, creating what Fernandez called the democratization of boredom. And when people started worrying about worker productivity, Matt said, psychologists stepped in.

“Whereas 19th century Americans expected monotony as a part of their lives, by the 1930s and 1940s, some psychologists are saying that humans deserve stimulation and entertainment, and that we thrive on variety,” Matt said.

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Technology has also changed how different emotions regulate each other, according to Fernandez and Matt. As certain technologies became widely available, people’s ability to be vain increased.

“Some technologies like the photograph, the letter, the mirror, gradually schooled Americans in how to celebrate themselves. So, vanity gradually became less of a sinful state, and more of an acceptable quality,” Matt said.

And with that growth in vanity, Matt said that people began to lose their sense of awe.

“Traditionally, people felt awed by God, by nature, by forces larger than themselves, and regarded themselves as a small part of a big universe that was overpowering in its forcefulness, but people became more and more impressed with their own powers and less impressed by those of God or nature.”

 Susan Matt, co-author of “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter” 

“Traditionally, people felt awed by God, by nature, by forces larger than themselves, and regarded themselves as a small part of a big universe that was overpowering in its forcefulness,” Matt said, “but people became more and more impressed with their own powers and less impressed by those of God or nature.”

According to Matt and Fernandez, all of these changes are united by one idea: the limitless self.

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“We think we can attend to more things than we used to. We think we can have infinite connections with other people, [or] that we can expect unlimited entertainment in our lives,” Fernandez said. “These are all part and parcel of the development of a new American self that imagines itself as limitless,” he explained.

And that sense of a limitless self, Matt and Fernandez believe, is the key to truly understanding how our emotions, and our feelings about them, have changed over time.

Eleanor Ho is an intern at Innovation Hub. Follow her on Twitter: @eleanorho_17.

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