3 Reasons Social Media Makes Us Unhappy (and what to ‘connect’ to instead)

With the invention and improvements of the internet, humans have never been more connected. A message that used to take weeks or months to reach a single person now can reach millions of people in a day. Whereas we used to only connect with a small community of people, we’re now involved in the day-to-day activities of friends, families, and hundreds of strangers. Yet as this trend has grown, humans have reportedly become more lonely. Even though technology and the internet continues to benefit our lives in a myriad of ways, we are ever more dissatisfied with our lives. In order to live a happy and satisfied life now and well into the future, we need to understand which connections result in a higher quality of life and which plague our mental health and society as a whole.


What is happening now

In many ways humans have achieved God-like powers in terms of communication, in fact we have even surpassed God-like powers according to some scriptures. One story of how death came to be explains that God sent a message of immortality via a bird to the first men on earth. The bird did not make it to the men, so man was doomed to die from that point on. If only God had a Twitter account…

There is no doubt that the internet and recent technologies have drastically improved the quality and enjoyment of life in many aspects of our world. As positive and important as these breakthroughs have been, they come with unintended consequences.

There is a very disheartening side effect of social media:

You’re unhappier: Recent studies show that the more time you spend on social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram, the more likely you are to be unhappier and less satisfied with your life. Whether you think your life is great or not, you are forced to compare your life with the highlight reels that you consistently scroll through. There is an unwinnable game we play, which is to attempt to validate your worth by the means of pictures, posts and comments – the stress that results from only a few likes and from the comparison you make to another post never outweigh the endorphin rush of a new notification. You just constantly dig a hole of dissatisfaction an inch deeper. Below are three reasons why social media makes us unhappier:

  • Focusing on the wrong things:  Numerous studies have shown and concluded what separate happy people from unhappy people. People who report being unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives typically focus on extrinsic rewards, while those who focus on intrinsic rewards tend to be far more happy and satisfied with how their lives are going – regardless of marriage status, income, or other external factors.
    • Extrinsic Rewards are things that are externally motivating: money, status and image. People who try to find happiness via more money, a higher status, or a better image often result in being far more dissatisfied with their lives and often become depressed. Consider the objective now of a typical Instagram or Snapchat post – what message do people try to convey? Most likely, these posts are trying to express at least one of the three extrinsic rewards. When a person receives a “like”, they emphasize to other people that they have a sense of worth and they are important, all the while that person hasn’t thought about themselves or their own self-interest in years. In a world of unlimited connections, it’s easy to fail to connect with ourselves and with the things that actually make our lives fulfilling.
    • Intrinsic Rewards are things that inherently make us feel good: relationships, personal growth, and helping others. When considering what we evolved from, this makes complete sense. When humans starting walking upright, women’s birth canal narrowed, which favored earlier births. Earlier births resulted in far more fragile babies and these babies depended on a village to raise them. Only the villages and tribes that developed deep relationships and a sense for cooperation survived. The others died off and did not pass on their genes. Our brains evolved to release “happy hormones” when we help other people and progress towards a common goal. It seems that if satisfaction and contentedness is what you seek, you should belong to a close group of people while working towards a cause you care about.
  • Not spending time wisely:  In 2016, Nielson Company Audience Report revealed that Americans spend close to 11 hours a day in front of a screen. Of those 11 hours, roughly 5 are spent on our smartphones. As an obvious reminder, there are only 24 hours in a day, so let’s break this down. We already cut about a third out of our day due to our much needed 7 hours of sleep (average). The average American then spends 1.5 hours in a car, something most people don’t necessarily consider time well spent. Just those two factors only leave us with 15.5 hours, so if we then spend those 11 hours staring at the bright lights and colors of screens, we are left with just 4.5 hours of time to look away and engage in authentic connections.
    • Bonus Tip: Want to find out what iPhone apps you spend the most time on? Go to Settings > Battery > then click the clock logo under ‘Battery Usage’. This will tell you the time you spend on your phone and in what application. Consider deleting your top three for one week then evaluate how you feel at the end of the 7 days.

on phones

  • A lack of emotional connections: Human-beings evolved to have around 30-50 deep relationships with people they lived and survived with, not to have 1,000 “friends” that you’ve never met. It used to be difficult to go anywhere and not recognize a face; now, with reports of loneliness at it’s highest point in recorded history, we are surrounded by people who are all alone. The wave of social media has impacted this same trend in an exaggerated fashion. According to research, more than 75% of Millennials feel addicted to social media, however it is this same demographic that is having a hard time feeling satisfied and fulfilled with their lives. It is a strange phenomena, we can’t resist going back for more even though it leaves us feeling unfulfilled.

What we should connect to today and in the future:

A common theme of this blog is considering the simpler times of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors in order to achieve happiness while the world powers on with the growth of exponential technology. In the social media arena, our ‘social’ (or virtual) lives will continually blend into our real lives until we it will be hard to tell a difference between the two.

The advances in virtual and augmented reality will compete heavily with the real life we have always known to experience. Being able to live in a virtual world or augmenting the world we live in now will provide us with abilities we could only dream of doing now. As many positive things may come, evolutionary biology warns us of the seemingly perfect “Facebook World” that could eventually be created.

Both of our good and bad experiences are meant to fade quickly after they happen. This is another reason not to focus on extrinsic rewards – the moment after you drive a new car off the lot or get a new promotion, your affinity for the car or higher status steadily diminishes until you crave the next best thing. This is no accident. Human evolution has no interest in sustained satisfaction. If you ate a handful of berries and felt completely satisfied, then you would not go out of your way to find and eat another handful of berries and you would starve to death. The same can be said for mating.

We evolved to quickly lose our satisfaction in the extrinsic, unauthentic, and selfish rewards – and these are what is primarily promoted in social media and virtual realities. We will need to be very wise in the future when deciding how we spend our time while trying to fill our craving for connection.

Considering it takes a long time to develop deep relationships and passions, we need to start working on these now to ensure we live mentally and emotionally fulfilling lives long into the future. In the book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger explains the importance of belonging to a group while working and progressing towards a shared goal. Junger even describes how often colonial men and women ran off in the woods to join tribes of Native Americans.

Again, this is what humans (and our brains) have evolved for. To work cooperatively with a close group of people while consistently using creativity to solve problems and help others. Another advantage of humans standing upright was that it freed up our arms, so our hands developed to do very complex and intricate things. It’s no surprise that artists often find most meaning and connection to their work.

Whereas today we seem to just be connected to a screen, our ancestors were connected to just about everything. Our senses had to be very in tune with the world in order to survive – we needed to constantly listen for the sound of trickling water to quench our thirst, we needed to carefully scan the ground to find food then smell and slowly chew a mushroom to detect if it was poisonous. This seems basic but they are very active and complex connections, and they are connections we are no longer making in the world.

We blur out any sounds of nature with blasting air conditioning units, car horns, and music. We rarely think about the taste of our food because our minds are likely still fixated on a screen or another task and we barely ever consider how our food even made it to our plate. We give no time to ‘stop and smell the roses’ because we are too busy maintaining the roses so they look as good as the neighbor’s (and yet we don’t even know the neighbor’s name).

It is true that we live in the most connected world in human history, but we have never been less connected. If you’re looking for advice as to what to connect to, I would say connect to everything. Today, our society is always looking for a quick fix – whether it is a way to eat, a way to get in shape, and even a way to connect. Connecting to the things such as the people in our life, work, hobbies, causes, and everything else is difficult to do but is extremely important to our well-being. As the world becomes even more connected due to the rise of the ‘Internet-of-Everything’, a focus and concentration is required to feel the sense of connection and belonging that we all desire.

Every blog will continue to discuss these types of situations and implications.  If you enjoyed reading and want weekly articles on how to live a healthy, happy and stable life in a very unstable future, please come back for more or enter your email address to receive an email of every new post. Thank you for reading and let me know what you agree and disagree with!

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