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Does Social Media Sabotage Happiness?
The Internet Isn’t Making Us Sad Any More Than TV Is Making Us Fat
Saying that social sharing sites show the “best of the world” is like saying television only shows the Hollywood dream version of reality. The Web is like a realtime sample of humanity; it’s all the emotions at once. Joy. Rage. Empathy. A LOT of Schadenfreude. For years, Facebook’s killer feature was a complete accounting of all the people who didn’t like me in high school.
The Internet isn’t making us sad any more than television is making us fat, or cellphones are giving us short attentions spans. I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve here, but I believe it’s the most powerful force for innovation and creation in human history — a series of tubes that simultaneously made the world smaller and bigger than we ever thought possible, while giving us the ability to reach out without ever leaving our homes. The next round of dramatic innovations will be about making that power portable, ubiquitous, and sharing it with the next 2 billion people who’ve never experienced it.
Is the Internet making us sad? The only despair I feel is for those who might never realize that the Web is so much more than tweets and reblogs: that we can get under the hood and make it whatever we want.
The Only Person Who Can Sabotage My Happiness Is Myself
I barely use Pinterest, but I’m a Facebook freak. I practically live on Facebook, both personally and professionally. If it’s possible to be clinically addicted to it, well, I probably am. Most of my personal Facebook status updates are sickeningly upbeat and maybe even a little cocky (“I just published this article here.” “Off to the dojo to spar.” “I just ran X miles in X minutes.”). Fine, they’re mostly cocky, which is probably super annoying to anyone whose newsfeed I status bomb up to four or five times a day. I use Facebook to gather career cred and contacts (a la LinkedIn), but mostly to interact with former classmates, friends, and family… and several dozen strangers whom I’m not even sure why I friended. I try stay mainly positive on my FB wall, but switch it up with whiny updates from the downer side of life (“Up all night with hurling kiddos again.” “Blew a red light and totaled my car.” “Can’t believe some dude fell asleep during my speech.”).
Despite studies that show the more people (and especially women) use Facebook, the lower their self-esteem dips, I still get a reassuring thrill out of learning what my 1,502 “friends” are up to every day, basically all day. Facebook is a one-stop gossip shop that makes it fast and easy for me to lurk on lots of people’s lives. Trolling everyone’s probably at least somewhat inflated status updates keeps me feeling connected to a larger community, which makes me happy, not sad. And, yes, sometimes a little jealous, too, especially when I see that a fellow writer published a book (a longtime goal I have yet to achieve). But that’s just life — life reflected on Facebook.
There will always be haves and have nots, on Facebook and off. Some of my friends, family members, and colleagues will do more, be more, and have more than me, in real-life and on Facebook. Before Facebook, people paraded their life’s achievements and possessions via annual Christmas cards and letters, family vacation photo albums, grandparent brag books, narcissistic blogs, and countless other means of ego on display. No matter what my so-called “friends” are bragging and buzzing about on Facebook, the only person who can sabotage my happiness is myself.
Kim Lachance Shandrow (LinkedIn) is a Los Angeles-based tech journalist who specializes in writing about social media marketing, startups, smartphones, streaming TV, mobile apps and green technology.
The Medium is Not the Cause
I’ve read about the Stanford research on how social media can make people sad, but I think it’s misguided. Proper casual usage is a joy and connects us with old friends we would otherwise lose touch with. It provides more social access and opportunity than we might have otherwise, and it makes keeping in touch more efficient.
Do people abuse Facebook and make themselves sad? Okay. But it’s the medium not the cause. I don’t think companies need to say – don’t spend your entire life on our site. Obsessive types may just find something else to obsess about. There’s a difference between a product that’s directly responsible for causing ill health – like lead paint – and a product that amplifies already existing conditions, like jealousy or low self esteem.
Strangers Are Just Family You Have Yet to Come to Know
It’s a big world out there and with the fast pace of social media, we can use it for entertainment, social good, advertising, networking—the list is almost neverending. It’s true that many people, myself included, want to put their best face forward whether it is online through social media, or in person at a business function or social event. As long as we are honest and resist embellishing the truth, we can use the medium for fun, and even use its power to do good. I’ve used Twitter to help out with fundraising and have seen others use it very successfully for campaigns.
“Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.” —Mitch Albom
On Facebook, I sometimes post photos of beautiful and exotic places as destinations on my travel wish list. I may not be able to visit to Rio de Janeiro or Bora Bora today or tomorrow, but it’s on my list, and posting it on Facebook opens conversations with friends and people from across the world. Some of us may not be able to check off every destination we’ve hoped of visiting in our lifetime, but there isn’t anything wrong with a little daydreaming—in fact, it can give us the inspiration to achieve goals.
I try to keep my social media pages positive and informative, and feature beautiful visual images for an interesting diversion. We as individuals need to take responsibility for our own social media pages just as much as the big companies do. I was very happy to see an article on The Guardian UK’s website about five social media applications that are doing what they can to foster development, growth and empowerment across the globe. For instance, Rwanda’s health minister, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho (@agnesbinagwaho) opens a dialogue on Twitter every Monday so that citizens can talk directly to their government. Catapult is the first crowdfunding platform aimed at women and girls that allows supporters to track the progress of their donations. It may be small steps, but they are definitely in the right direction.
True contentment comes from within—as they say, money can’t buy love or happiness. And you probably can’t buy it through Pinterest either. But if we all do our part and try to stay positive, social media surely can be used as a way to support the greater good.
Balance Is The Key
If you only live your life online and through other people, you’re probably going to be disappointed and unhappy at some point. Online networks and platforms are not a substitute for real, live and in person interaction with people. Pinterest, Facebook and other social platforms are tools you can use to share your experiences with other people and begin to develop relationships. They are not meant as a vehicle to live someone’s else’s life.
Balance is the key for anyone who is active on social networks; balance between online and offline interaction. Social media sites are not happiness sabotagers in and of themselves; rather, it’s the user’s reaction and interpretation of their own experience using these networks which determines whether it affects their level of happiness.
People that constantly live their lives through the experiences of others (or alleged experiences as not everything someone posts online is necessarily true,) are doomed to feel their lives are not as exciting or happy as others they observe on social media. You create your own happiness through your own experiences. It’s up to you to make the decision to take action to make your desires a reality. Only then can you be really truly happy.
People Behave Similarly Online and Off
In this context, it could be argued that TV, magazines and movies have always been happiness sabotagers. Sites like Facebook and Pinterest are just new versions of the same antics. However, if we dig into how traditional media and social media are different, there may be something to this.
With TV and traditional media, we observe strangers living an above average quality of life, however, with social media we observe people we actually know living (what seems to be) an above average quality of life. If there’s cause for concern, it’s that. The perceived happiness of people we know probably impacts our own happiness much more than the perceived happiness of a stranger. For example, it’s easier to say, “That’s not real life,” to something we see on TV vs. something posted online by someone we know.
If there is sabotage at work, here’s one way to deal with it from a non-happiness crushing perspective: the way people behave online is similar to the way they behave in-real-life. People will always put their best self forward, whether it’s online or when they doll themselves up for a night on the town. Everybody wants to look his or her personal best.
If we consider that when looking at how awesome everyone is through Facebook and Pinterest, we can put our friends’ delusions of grandeur in perspective and not let it cripple our own happiness.
Stop Living Life Through Social Media
Every year there is a new social media platform to try – some stick and some fall. But as users spend more and more time with social media, their lives become more dependent and intertwined with their favorite mediums. This goes beyond the common (and frankly pathetic) practice of broadcasting your entire life via social media, the “look at me” mentality has now spread across multiple generations, morphing into a user base that lives their life through social media. Early critics of social media warned this would occur, and recommended the medium be used as a convenient extension of real-life human interaction, augmenting personal and professional relationships. Unfortunately for our society that is not what happened. So now we have an inflated issue of the grass is greener effect thanks to instant access to the successes and failures of our social media circles.
For people who choose to remain offline hermits but online extroverts, social media will always be a source of despair. But for those who choose to interact with a healthier mindset, platforms like Facebook and my personal favorite – Pinterest – are a source of creative inspiration, contributing to important and meaningful conversations based on personal interests, and maintaining long distance relationships.
Regarding businesses’ place in this “live your life online” society, they can only benefit. The more time people spend online as a happy or miserable human being, the more opportunity brands and businesses have to reach and engage them. Today’s users are looking to social media to guide them toward all they can aspire to be, and businesses to should provide them with that type of content. For example – real estate agent should include fun, viral content such as “the 10 most beautiful homes in New York City” alongside their own listings and any blog content, because they gain far greater attention as obsessed pinners pass the link and images around. Beyond convenience or education, businesses can benefit by catering to the changing emotional state of their social media audience.
It is simply not the responsibility of your local travel agent, or the folks at TOMS, to educate today’s users on how to live a happier life with social media. This is the job of our education system, parents, and any users with a shred of self-awareness. But that is a very different conversation of course.