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Give social media a break and reboot your happiness

Another day… another piece of research, highlighting the way in which Social Media makes us unhappy. This latest study was carried out on behalf of Privilege the UK home insurer. The researchers’ extrapolate that up to seven million adults in the UK, experienced ‘depressed feelings’ when they saw the lives of their friends displayed on social media.

Don’t switch off… bear with us… we appreciate that this is never a popular message. Followers of this blog will know that Threshold has, for some time been acting as the ‘Cassandra’, warning people that social media creates the illusion of that all-important social contact without the real benefits. But there is good news at the end of all of this.

Social media promised to make us more widely connected as a species. It doesn’t. Research by the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar indicates that the number of meaningful relationships that your mind can readily cope with remains unchanged, regardless of how many social media connections you have. This number has become hard-wired by evolution.

Posting things about ourselves on social media encourages us to focus on ‘extrinsic goals’ such as admiration and approval from others. A study of 147 graduates from Rochester University in 2009, assessed their stated goals and categorized these goals into either the more extrinsic (those associated with reputation, fame and approval from others) or the more intrinsic (such as meaningful relationships.) When the lives of the individuals were tracked overtime, those with more extrinsic motivations were significantly more likely to be anxious and depressed. Most of us will feel that we are immune to this sort of pressure, but the evidence shows that we are not. Social media tends to encourage a competitive, approval-seeking mind-set.

Checking your smartphone is compulsive because it works on the principle of variable rewards. Much of the time there will be little or nothing there, but there might just be something exciting and important. Studies show that if you add a variable – or unpredictable element – into a reward, you increase the perceived value (the ‘valence’ of the reward, in psychologists’ jargon) by several times. Designers of gambling slot machines have understood this for many years. The anticipation is what counts. That anticipation gives your brain a sweet little shot of dopamine. And we are becoming addicted to these shots of dopamine. We are training our brains to become bored and restless more rapidly. This makes it harder to give our attention to people who matter… partners, children, colleagues and friends.

What’s more, time spent on-screen is time spent away from what really makes us happy… meaningful connections with other people. As Sherry Turkle argues so compellingly in her book Reclaiming Conversation, connection means the full works… eye contact, expression, intonation, physical presence, plus the unpredictable and unexpected nature of two-way conversation.

At the start of seminars now, we often show the photographs of US photographer, Eric Pickersgill. He snapped real-life scenarios that he observed, typically of groups of friends, lovers, and family members hanging out together. He then removed their electronic devices from the images. The resulting images show starkly how disconnected we have become from one another. Where once there was eye contact, there is now only eyes-down.

We promised you good news and here it is. As with most things we are remarkably resilient as a species. Our minds have remarkable restorative properties. Research in the US, among attendees of summer camps, shows that over just five device-free days, children find that their capacity for conversation is restored, along with measurable improvements in empathy.

Tech is not going away and neither is social media, and nor should we want it to. We just need to develop some sensible protocols around it. Become aware of your instincts around checking your tech. Allow yourself some generous screen free time. When you get together with friends suggest that you make it screen-free. Similarly when meeting with colleagues at work, encourage screen-free sessions. Our lives are shaped by what – and whom – we pay attention to. Your brain’s ‘attentional system’ is at the heart of your humanity. It’s time to reclaim it.


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