Are you an e-mail addict?

I know I am. Every time I pick up my phone the blinking envelope in the corner reminds me that there’s something new to deal with. And while hope springs eternal that it’s a note from an editor assigning me a juicy new story, as often as not it’s just a poorly-spelled forward from an elderly relative, making bad jokes about how life was so much better before all this gosh-darned technology. Was it really? If I stop checking my email so often, will I regain the peace and comfort of that bygone era? According to the results of an experiment published this week by researchers from the University of British Columbia, the answer might well be yes.

Kostadin Kushlev is scholar of happiness. Under the supervision of Elizabeth Dunn in UBC’s Department of Psychology, Kushlev investigates the impact of various activities on our sense of well-being, from whether or not we have children to how we raise them and more. Lately, he’s turned his attention to e-mail, but he’s not the first to suggest that our addiction to technology may impact our emotions. “Pretty much all the other studies that have been published have looked at correlations, for example, between how many e-mails you get a day and how stressed you feel,” says Kushlev. While positive correlations between email and stress have been found, it can be hard to pick apart the effects of the e-mail itself versus other factors. For example, people who have stressful jobs — and therefore feel stressed — also tend to get a lot of e-mail. In other words, frequent e-mail checking may be the symptom of stress, not the cause.

What made Kushlev’s study different is that it involved a conscious intervention. Participants were asked to check their e-mail as much as possible — Kushlev says that worked out to about 12 to 15 times per day — for one week, followed by another week in which they were limited to checking it only three times per day (in half the participants, the order of the two weeks were reversed). At the end of each day, participants went online to answer survey questions designed to measure stress and various other psychological factors. For example, one stress-related question was: “Today, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?” Kushlev and his colleagues have posted the full list of questions online.

And the results? According to the study, there wasn’t much difference in psychological measures like “meaning in life” or “perceived productivity”. Even “social connectedness” didn’t suffer, suggesting that waiting a few hours to respond to an e-mail won’t make or break a friendship, or a job. But there was a notable difference in the measure of stress, with those who limited their email use reporting significantly lower levels. How much lower? Kushlev refers to it as a “decent effect” and estimates that it’s about on par with other techniques used to reduce stress, such as deep breathing or brief meditation.

Personally, I found this surprising. I would have expected that not being able to check e-mail would raise my stress level, rather than lower it, because I’d worry that there was something pressing that I wasn’t responding to. Of course, that’s just my intuition, and perhaps if I tried it myself, I’d find the opposite. It’s also possible that different people would react to the intervention in different ways.  Kushlev told me that about two-thirds of the participants were graduate or undergraduate students. Based on my own experience of grad school, the need to answer email promptly can vary greatly from day to day. For example, during grant application time I hardly left my desk, but at other times I could disappear for up to a week without anyone really taking notice. As a freelancer, I find that’s no longer the case. But Kushlev points out that in his study, the effect did not depend on profession; the non-students (mostly health-care professionals) in the study had the same results as the students. Still, the total sample size was only 124 people, which is probably not large to represent the whole population.

Kushlev acknowledges that it would be nice to see the study replicated with a larger sample size, and with people from a wider range employment sectors. Nevertheless, he thinks that even if the effect is shown to be small, it could have big impacts. “If you look at the effect of taking Aspirin on heart disease, it’s a small effect on an individual. But when you multiply it by millions of people, there’s huge effects on the health of society,” he says.

On an individual level, Kushlev practices what he preaches. For example, as we talked, he was receiving many requests from other people who wanted to interview him. “I’m basically dedicating the morning to dealing with those e-mails and calls, but I’ll do something else for part of the afternoon,” he says. “And then later I’ll do another session.” Not bad advice. Now that this is posted, I think I’ll take some time off and go for a walk. Right after I respond to a few more e-mails.

If you have questions of your own for Kushlev, you can get him on Twitter @HappyScholar

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