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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Internet Explorer: Social media and the pursuit of happiness



They say happiness is not a destination, but a manner of traveling. Presumably, “they” are also responsible for expressions like “key to happiness,”  “do what makes you happy,” “don’t worry, be happy,” and so on. Whatever the customary and quite honestly, clichéd implications about happiness, everybody considers it to be an integral part of our well-being, and in our technologically evolving culture, it is worth studying.

I visit Facebook multiple times a day. I am not immune to the psychological and emotional effects this force of habit influences. While it does sound dramatic, visiting social media sites can actually influence your psyche to varying extents. A 2013 University of Michigan study concluded that young adults who frequent Facebook experience observable declines in subjective well-being. Participants were continually assessed based on two self-report questions: ‘How do you feel right now?’ and, ‘How long did you use Facebook since the last time we asked?’ They also responded to questions regarding anxiety and loneliness, and their answers revealed a positive correlation between the amount of time spent on the site and experienced levels of sadness and unsettlement. Overall, the researchers in the study were led to suspect that extroverted users in particular were more sensitive to the social events in Facebook. Thus, according to the study, social comparison is a leading factor in declining emotional well-being.

This statement proves to be somewhat true in my own life. Sometimes, when I see someone celebrate a major milestone on their timeline whether it be an engagement or an impressive job a concealed part of myself adopts the sentiment of a forced smile, or in many cases, a feeling of inadequacy. My derisive reaction to someone else’s good fortune is not uncommon. I am experiencing what is referred to in popular culture as ‘FOMO,’ or ‘fear of missing out.’ All the same, this gut reaction reveals how a fragile emotional psyche can quickly turn one’s neutrality into envy.

I find that I don’t necessarily envy what others have; I don’t want that job or to marry that guy, so maybe envy isn’t the accurate sentiment. Perhaps we mislabel this ‘pain over good things’ attitude as ‘envy’ when it is actually more complex than that.

In a sense, it’s as if the realm of social media triggers a latent inferiority complex we all have, composed of our deepest insecurities. If anything, this depressive and default way of thinking  indicates how satisfied we are with our own lives rather than how we actually feel about someone else’s happenings. This brings up some very debatable, psychoanalytic and potentially Freudian if-you-go-there questions. Does the newsfeed present some form of competition? And if so, what is the prize?

With all this said, it’s not as if we are confined to these feelings of sadness and inadequacy. While depressive emotions are largely instinctive and provoked, we also have the ability to mediate them. Think about it.

To every reaction there is the preluding question of  ‘how we can react’ followed by the actual action that is framed by the morally implicative question of how we should react. But what does this tell us about social media’s ability to trigger feelings of inadequacy and sadness? We should try to avoid defaulting to depressive thoughts by adopting a more self-aware mindset. By this, I am referring to actually considering our emotional responses. Overcoming our own sadness requires that we work at it, as opposed to waiting for the storm to pass. Not only does Facebook present a bragging space, but it also a challenges us to ask ourselves who we are personally and how happy and generous we can be for others.

Many of the factors which determine our happiness, including career aspirations and personal goals, could neither be conceived nor carried out without explicit consideration of our lives. It is with this same ability that we must accordingly designate negative and positive emotional responses to others’ good fortune in order to not compromise our own. And then, when we achieve our own personal goals, we can be met with genuine congratulations.

You can reach Jazmin Garcia at msjgarcia@ucdavis.edu.


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