How To Be Happy In The Age Of Instagram
Pick your poison. Whether it is the school friend who is seemingly never not on holiday, a university mate with a home out of a Nora Ephron film, an ex-colleague who can’t stop winning prestigious awards or an acquaintance with two cherub-like babies, someone on social media is going to make you doubt yourself.
We live in an age of envy. Salary envy, children envy, husband envy, body envy, fashion envy—you name it, we feel it. Jealousy has always been central to the human experience. As Aristotle observed in the fourth century BC, "Envy is pain at the sight of such good fortune," inspired by "those who have what we ought to have, or have got what we did have once." As esteemed American writer Gore Vidal put it (a bit more cyncically), “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
But envy in the age of social media takes on a new dimension. In the past, envy was largely imaginary. We may have known a friend was renting a house in the South of France with a beautiful lover, but we never saw the physical proof. In today’s social media-filled world, the sea, the Cypress trees, the bronzed limbs and the declarations of love are right there on your phone, making you feel bad before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.
The crux of the matter is that we now compare our inner, flawed messy lives to the photoshopped exterior lives of the people we follow on social media. “Envy is being taken to an extreme," says Ethan Kross, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies the impact of Facebook on our well-being. "We are constantly bombarded by photoshopped lives and that exerts a toll on us the likes of which we have never experienced in the history of our species. And it is not particularly pleasant.”
It is now well documented that the more you scroll, the more discontent you become. A recent study showed that every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: young people who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.
The study shows that our happiness suddenly plummeted after 2012 (the year when many people first owned smartphones). So did our self-esteem and satisfaction with our lives. These declines in well-being mirror other studies finding sharp increases in mental health issues among Generation Z today, including in depressive symptoms, self-harm and suicide. Especially compared to the more optimistic millennials, many of whom didn’t grow up with pervasive social media, their younger siblings are markedly less self-assured, and more are depressed.
The same study shows a similar trend for older adults. Those over the age 30 are less happy than they were 15 years ago, and are having sex less frequently. There may be many reasons for these trends, but adults are undoubtedly spending more time with screens than they used to, which leads to less face-to-face time with their partners.
Interestingly, most people are able to intellectualise the impact social media has on them—they know they aren’t being shown an authentic version of someone’s life and therefore know it shouldn’t affect them. However, emotional envy is far more powerful than we think.
“Most of the people I speak to think they are mentally distancing themselves from what they see on social media platforms—they know that these images and narratives that are presented aren’t real,” says Jamie Chiu, a Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist. “But however much we verbally rationalise it, on an emotional level, it’s still making us feel bad. Particularly if the images we see play into what we specifically aspire to, but what we don’t have—be it a certain type of lifestyle, job or relationship. Then it can become very destructive.”
Ultimately someone out there is always going to be doing better than you in a particular aspect of their lives, and the brain is very good at latching onto the one thing they are achieving and you’re not. “On an evolutionary basis, humans have been designed to envy their peers as this makes them strive harder,” says Chiu. “Although evolution obviously wasn’t anticipating the tech age.”
An even more pernicious jealousy is one we have for ourselves. Most of us create glossy online lives for ourselves that bear only a passing resemblance to the reality of our existence. But it is all too easy to look back at last summer’s Instagram posts and be fooled into thinking your life has deteriorated since then.
“Envy of your own, curated online life is a very modern, very widespread phenomenon,” says Chiu. “It’s important to remember how easily the brain is tricked. So even if you know full well a photo album you shared doesn’t show the full truth of that particular holiday or period of your life, look back at it a few months later and your brain will be fooled into thinking it’s true.”
But why do we keep doing it? At points in all our lives, bad things will happen: people will become ill, jobs will be lost, relationships will break down. We might not have control over any of that, but we do over how we spend our leisure time, so why do we continue to dedicate so much of it to a pursuit that makes us feel bad?
Addiction is the answer. Psychologists believe that anyone spending more than four hours a day on social media has an addiction, and the World Health Organisation has classified it as a mental disorder, as people consume social media instead of studying, sleeping or working. The most vulnerable people tend to be young, single and female. Addiction is also associated with lower levels of education and self-esteem.
The simplest solution to all this is to pick up your phone less but not banish it altogether. In the same study referenced above, people who used social media for one hour or less a day were happier than those who didn’t use it all: the key was keeping it in moderation. “It is also important to monitor how you feel before you log on,” says Chiu. “If you’re feeling low then do something else, but if you’re in a good mood, set a timer and go online for 30 minutes.”
On an evolutionary basis, humans have been designed to envy their peers, as this makes them strive harder. Although evolution obviously wasn’t anticipating the tech age.
— Jamie Chiu
If you’re an introvert, you might be using social networking sites instead of engaging in face-to-face socialising. This is partly positive as you can connect with like-minded communities online without anxiety. But too much of it comes at a price: virtual friendships are helpful but far less emotionally supportive than real-world ones. “Focus on building communities on Facebook or Twitter, but most importantly, try to meet up with some of these people IRL [in real life],” says Chiu. “Bringing them out of the virtual world and into a café in front of you does wonders for your mental health.”
Ultimately, like so much in life, the question of whether social media makes you unhappy or not depends on how you use it. Most adults know that excessive consumption of anything we enjoy, be it food, alcohol, shopping or even sex, can lead to serious problems. Apply that same rationale to social media, and realise that is drive for perfection is all an illusion.