Is Modern Entertainment Making Us More Lonely?

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the show, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!

The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.

With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.

Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.

US teens who meet up with their friends “almost every day”. Image from The Conversation

The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.

“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³

As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother to meet with real humans in a bar, for an experience that might turn out to be mediocre? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s archaic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.

Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. The infinite popular posts on Reddit are all much funnier than I am. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime instead? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, even verging on the addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how paramount entertainment is for some people.

The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from Wall-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.

Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging—our fellow humans.

**

References

  1. Neil Howe, 2019, ‘Millennials And The Loneliness Epidemic’, Forbes
  2. Selby Frame, 2017, ‘Julianne Holt-Lunstad Probes Loneliness, Social Connections’, American Psychological Association
  3. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne,Robles, Theodore F. Sbarra, David A, 2017, ‘Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States.’, American Psychological Association
  4. Sonya Collins, 2019, ‘The Loneliness Epidemic Has Very Real Consequences’, WebMD
  5. Olds, J. & Schwartz, R. S., 2009, ‘ The lonely American: Drifting apart in the 21st century’, Beacon Press
  6. Jean Twenge, 2019, ‘Teens have less face time with their friends — and are lonelier than ever’, The Conversation
  7. 2019 ‘Getting personal: Putting the me in entertainment and media’, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Why I Was Racist in My Youth

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

At school, for a period of a few years, I was a racist little bastard. Most of the black kids in my school were taller, wider, and a hell of a lot tougher than I was, putting their physical prowess to use by skipping lunch queues, taking the best seats in class, and shouldering me effortlessly off the ball during games of football, as though I weighed about the same as a cocktail sausage. During break, they’d nestle into their desired spot in the playground, and blast the surrounding concrete with the tinny, harsh sounds of 2Pac and Busta Rhymes, to the distaste of every Verve or Lenny Kravitz fan in the vicinity (this was a boy’s school, so no self-respecting lad in the 90’s would own up to liking the Spice Girls). These injustices, together with the fact that I could do nothing to restore them without receiving an eye-watering pummelling, created a burning rage inside me, discharged among friends with mutters of “fucking wogs” or “those black bastards are at it again.” At the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world; a righteous point-of-view that dragged us from the lowly position of pathetic, weak and useless, to an elevated position of power and superiority, even if it was just in our minds. Puberty was the boggiest of slogs, and when you’re just trying to drag yourself through something in one piece, reality and truth seem to have less importance. Racism just happened to be a readily-available psychological defence mechanism, used to cover up feelings of ineptitude and worthlessness, protecting my meager sense of self-esteem. I just felt like a skinny, useless white boy, surrounded by all manner of kids who were bigger, stronger, and smarter than me. I was like the frightened little dog that barks because of its fear, fooling nobody aside from myself.

In the first year of sixth form, I escaped what would have undoubtedly been a severe beating, after my racists comments were overheard and passed onto the most enormous black kid in the entire school—a six-foot brick shithouse who, if my memory serves correctly, went by the name of Kwame. The charge against me was “wanting to stab a black boy”, which proved to be a complete lie on the part of the informer—a compact Indian kid who wanted to embellish my intolerable racism as much as possible, in order to see me punished. After weeks of successfully dodging the formidable wall of muscle that wanted to squeeze me to death, the snitch pointed me out to him in our common room, and after politely asking my nemesis to step outside (a request that he took as an invitation to fight), I talked myself out of the entire pickle by declaring that someone with mixed-race cousins such as myself wouldn’t dream of saying something so abhorrent, because such a thing would technically apply to my very own flesh and blood, as though I harboured desires to stab my own family to death because of their darker complexions. That part is true, by the way—I do have mixed race cousins. My silver tongue saved me from a disagreeable trouncing on that day, but in hindsight, I probably deserved a smallish beating.

Today, whenever a racist peeks over the parapet with a unintentionally blatant comment, my first response is usually contempt. I marvel at their ability to pigeonhole an entire race of people, while conveniently forgetting that I used to do exactly the same thing, for probably the same reasons. Thankfully, my confidence and self-esteem increased with age, blessing me with fresher, clearer perspectives, and a hardier ego that didn’t require cowardly racism in order to protect it. For the remaining racists wandering the world—shaking in their steel toe-capped boots whenever a burly black gentleman passes them in the street, and cursing them quietly under their breaths—changing their views might be a lot more difficult, particularly when surrounded with like-minded friends, each one more chicken-hearted than the last. Many racists appear to be nought but frightened pussies who never developed the true confidence of adulthood, but instead remain in pitiful immaturity, shielding their fragile self-esteem with hateful vitriol, but lacking the knowledge or the motivation to understand why they behave in such ways. To know thyself is tough, but judgement is easy, and feels oh-so-good. The easier path is always more tempting, particularly for the psychologically weak, who might trapse along it comfortably for their entire lives, lacking the courage and will to take the harder road, and forgoing a happier existence in the process. Ignorance is most certainly not bliss.

Art has a way of blessing us with truth and understanding, in unintended ways. Aside from an increased sense of confidence, a turning point for my own bigotry was reading Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book so beautifully written, weaving a story of such crystal-clear clarity, that you’re left with the fiercest sense of injustice for the main characters, and a greater sense of empathy for their terrible plight. I suspect that Harper has softened the views of many a small-minded bigot, with the potential to remedy many more, but in our age of ignorance, where social media and tabloid journalism serve as dominant teachers, conveying little but righteous outrage and fear, the likelihood of such a person reading the book seems about as feasible as Tommy Robinson marrying Malala Yousafzai. These types of noxious media can act as tribalistic echo chambers of disdain, shrinking our world down to scant collections of regurgitated hate, with little existing outside of it, and little chance of us breaking away to something good and admirable. Such comfortable bubbles have a limited amount of oxygen, before we suffocate. An exceptional story, on the other hand, can be a masterful teacher of empathy, and help to shift the views of the most stubborn extremist, if we could somehow force it upon them without impinging on their freedom.

For me, school was a time for survival, rather than self-improvement. I’m fortunate enough to have been raised with the support of kind, caring parents, satisfying the majority of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and once school was over, affording me the luxury of self-actualisation in the guise of endless books. Some people aren’t so fortunate. It’s tempting to become immediately self-righteous when faced with intolerance, but such a response displays a lack of understanding in itself, the exact same source as the racism. Babies don’t emerge from their mothers with their arm held aloft in a hateful seig heil, but instead develop such behaviours as a way to soothe their fear, protect their delicate egos, and forgo the effort needed to actually understand the world. What is a racist, after all, than a frightened dog, yapping to protect itself?

How to Find Hidden Beauty

Image from Pixabay

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect”, relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect”, and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro”. It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge for some well-earned rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us that incredible beauty can be found in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

The Invasion of Cheap Thrill Entertainment

Photo from Gratis Photography

Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate. 

Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. We might be tempted to call this “cheap thrill entertainment”, and though it does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.

First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to cheap thrill entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with cheap thrill entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.

Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of cheap thrill entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.

The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.

Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, cheap thrill entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.

Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.

There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the way we relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in cheap thrill entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.

References

  1. Tom Jacobs, Watching TV Can Boost Emotional Intelligence
  2. Carolyn Gregoire, The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You’ve Never Imagined
  3. Harriet Griffey, The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world

The Psychological Driving Force That Makes Social Networks so Successful

fran.jpg

Francois de La Rochefoucauldimage from The Art of Manliness
For a poodle-haired French philosopher born in the elegance of a post-Renaissance Paris, a social network would describe the group of friends that he spends his time with, sipping tea in a lavish French salon while discussing the deepest topics of life. Francois de La Rochefoucauld is a philosopher famed for penning a short book of stinging, pithy maxims, aimed at eliminating the illusions that we have related to our own behaviours, with particular emphasis on our desperate need to impress other people.

The gargantuan, overgrown beasts that we call social networks today might be unthinkable for someone from La Rochefoucauld’s time, but despite being beyond that generation’s reach, the man himself would probably have had a lot to say about them. One his greatest skills was his ability to perceive the underlying motives behind people’s behaviour, much of which is focused on our longing for social approval—a desire that forms the foundation of modern social networks. Without the “like” button, there probably wouldn’t be a Facebook, an Instagram, or a Twitter. There may not even be a Medium. La Rochefoucauld was able to fully appreciate the power of social approval, and the extent to which it drives our behaviour.

The lives that we portray on social media can be vastly different to reality, with only the so-called positive aspects of our experiences shared, in an unconscious attempt to disguise the often banal truth of our day-to-day existences. Like actors on a stage, we slip on a more attractive mask, position ourselves in appealing situations, and carry out impressive performances to trick our audience into believing that our lives are something to be envied. We want to be adored, after all. The problem with such bombastic fakery is that the mask can become to the reality, and who we really are slips from our memory, to be replaced with society’s notion of prestige and success—the existence of an subservient toady.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

A disguise is never suitable for long—eventually we’ll yearn for our heart’s true desire. We must go our own way, lest we live the life of someone else. Social networks are poison to individualism, with each member striving to impress their hundreds of friends, and selling a little bit of their soul in the process. Flattery—and the vanity that seeks it—insidiously cuts away at our uniqueness, until there’s nothing left but a shell, with social media “friends” permitted to fill it up with whatever they want.

“If we did not flatter ourselves, the flattery of others could never harm us.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Much of our social posting—our political rants, jokes, daily gripes, TV recommendations, social commentary, or anything else that we deem to share with the world—can be traced back to our desire for approval, eyes darting to the alluring notification icon whenever it appears, yearning for people to like what we have to say. The scope can even be widened to any interaction that we have with people. As highly social animals, a great deal of our mutterings are made with the intention to impress. How often would you make a comment that you know would agitate your audience, darkening your reputation in the process?

“We speak little if not egged on by vanity”
—La Rochefoucauld

La Rochefoucauld believed that without our own rapacious sense of vanity to spur us on, we’d be a hell of a lot quieter. But as long as there’s admiration to be had, we’ll capture it in whatever way that we can (provided it doesn’t offend anyone important).

These assertions about our good natures may arrive with a painful sting, perhaps a righteous, offended position of denial. Other people may be so insecure as to behave in such sycophantic ways, but me? Pfft. Observe your behaviour more closely, and you may discover that the French philosopher is much more accurate than you’d like to believe.

An overly-contrived person—who we might call a “suck-up” or a “try-hard”—is just someone who fails to impress surreptitiously, like the rest of us. There’s a tendency to dislike these kinds of people, because their pronounced ulterior motive shines a glaring, unflattering light on our own. The traits that we dislike about others are often the traits that we dislike (or flat-out deny) about ourselves. The unfriend button never looked so appealing.

“We have no patience with other people’s vanity because it is offensive to our own”
—La Rochefoucauld

Even the deeds that we deem the most wholesome may crumble under meticulous scrutiny. Why do you really give to charity? To help the unfortunate, or to experience the glowing sense of goodness that accompanies it, and the properly-deserved swathes of likes that attach themselves to the social share? How much of your behaviour is ultimately selfish? This isn’t an advocation to stop giving to charity—the motives behind such acts are inconsequential, because a good deed is being done regardless—but an invitation to be inquisitive about your behaviour.

“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Overcoming fakery in order to live a more genuine life seemed of paramount importance to La Rochefoucauld. A world in which the judgmental eyes of your fellow Facebook friends are banished beyond redemption is a world in which virtue could thrive for its own sake, without thought of reward—a desire to be good for no other reason than goodness itself. What could be more beautiful than that?

“Virtue would go far if vanity did not keep it company.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Perfect valour consists in doing without witnesses that which we would be capable of doing before everyone.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Social networks are an inexhaustible source of fuel for our vanity—a platform that allows us to focus our efforts on getting as much kudos as possible, regardless of its obvious mediocrity, and lack of durability. It doesn’t take much to share a meme on Instagram, but damn, how good do those likes feel? Social networks are an addictive distraction from worthier endeavours—meaningful activities that actually contain the potential to improve our lives, as opposed to having our precious egos soothed with worthless virtual approval.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

Sadly, life is a little more complicated than just doing whatever the hell we want, without consideration of social consequences. Though we may be aching to post a caustic response to our cousin’s imbecilic right-wing social post, self-preservation stays our hand. There’s good logical sense behind our desire to impress—we need other people to survive. Sociality is a delicate balancing act, with soulless flattery on the one side, and courageous individualism on the other. Though it’s possible and infinitely more valuable to sway towards individualism, and live in accordance with our own meaningful values, survival requires us to appear favourably in the eyes of others, or risk wasting away in isolation. The social nature of our species is the reason for our innate vanity, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Though the razor-sharp vision of La Rochefoucauld may cut through the illusion of our selfish behaviours, it doesn’t deter from that the fact that we need other people to survive, at least in some small degree. These people can be found in the world around us, not just as faces on computer screens, characterised by counterfeit tales of perfectly edited lives.

Social networks are vanity on crack, and the acerbic mind of La Rochefoucauld would probably have condemned them to the dust heap of history, where they undoubtedly belong.

Why you should distrust your beliefs

argument.jpgImage from Farnam Street

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

1_yN2Xhv-M5PPerWzDVNt3sw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

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Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

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It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.

Why you need relaxation time

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Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of achievement and self-improvement, and forget how to relax. There’s always more to be done – another blog to write, another email to respond to, a new groundbreaking skill that might finally make you feel some kind of contentment. Our opportunities for accomplishment seem only limited by the number of hours in the day, which if given the chance, we’d happily extend in order to get more shit done. 30 hours in a day? Fuck yeah! I’ll be a millionaire by the year’s end!

The inevitable result of such furious ambition is burn-out, and an increased risk of heart-disease. If you don’t watch yourself, your enthusiasm for productivity might just end up killing you. Achievement is obviously a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling life, but we must learn to walk the obscure line between production and relaxation. Some of you might only need a little downtime in order to recharge your batteries, and others a little more. You can figure this out by paying attention to your mind and body – are your thoughts and heart racing? Muscles tense? Knot in your stomach? Spend a few hours doing something else aside from work, for the sake of your own health. You simply can’t be productive all the time and expect to get away with it.

Some people, myself included, have a tendency to see relaxation as a waste of time. The activation beep of my Playstation 4 is followed by a sinking feeling of guilt; a sense that I could be improving my chances of success by writing another blog. In reality, without that relaxation time, I’m simply depleting my body’s batteries more and more until my ability to write good content is sabotaged by my own foolish ambition. Relaxing is fundamental if you want to be a high achiever. Breaks from your work will suffuse you with the energy that you need to continue kicking goals.

Relaxation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on the floor and omming at your bedroom wall. What’s calming for one person might be torturous for the next. Watching fast-paced American sport might be your jam, or settling into the couch with a captivating book. Lounging lizard-like in a soothing hot bath may be your pursuit, or clambering your way up a virtual hill and shooting virtual citizens with a virtual rifle, you sick son of a bitch. Whatever it is that relaxes you, remind yourself that it’s a worthy exercise, for the sake of your withering sanity.

Not sure what activity helps you to unwind? Experiment! Take the opportunity to try new things, you might just find something that you’re deeply passionate about. A varied life is an interesting one.

As for social media – it probably isn’t relaxing for you, especially if you’re a young person. There’s a million articles outlining its insidious and damaging effects, including causing us stress, the arch-enemy of relaxation. It’s time to close our accounts and replace them with something more nourishing.

There’s really no point in achieving everything that can be achieved if you can’t calm the fuck down and appreciate it. We absolutely need to recharge our batteries from time to time, in order to be productive, happy souls. Give yourself a break from time to time, relax, and indulge.

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In praise of being bored

1_llgs8isafV62SSXgHVVr5wPhoto by Julian Howard on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that many of us frantically try to avoid. The moment it starts to creep into our awareness – that sense of tedious lethargy which seems to taint our very souls – we instinctively want to liberate ourselves from the moment; to escape into anything else. It’s often associated with feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor, and as such, has been tarred with a negativity that’s difficult to shake off. Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”  – G.K. Chesterton

Philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that without focus, we’re faced with nothingness, and can experience dreaded existential anxiety:

“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference” – Martin Heidegger

It may as well be lumped into the same category as leprosy and Piers Morgan, for all the good it does us. And yet, boredom is a misunderstood phenomenon. It happens to have a multitude of benefits that few of us are aware of, which could be judiciously reaped if we manage to achieve the laborious feat of leaving our phones the fuck alone for a few minutes.

As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us to go towards it. It serves as a mechanism to seek beneficial new experiences. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.

“Something’s got to happen – that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.” – Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during times of boredom can tell us a lot about what we want, and deliver the kick up the arse we need to achieve it. Self-destructive and addictive social media habits are causing us to miss important observations about ourselves; invaluable insights that shine a light on our deepest desires. Instead of filling our time with entertaining nonsense, we can focus on what’s meaningful. Boredom forces us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, instead of mindless content consumers.

“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.” – Wijnand van Tilburg

Professor John Eastwood is a seasoned boredom researcher, and cautions against our pernicious desire to escape it:

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life” – John Eastwood

Few people like to be alone with nothing but their thoughts, because their thoughts are often difficult and would rather be avoided. But running away only exacerbates the problem; it grows in your mind like a rapacious, steroid-injecting virus, goading you into a fight that must eventually be fought. The beasts that you bury deep within will always rise to the surface; no amount of distraction will numb them into submission.

Another detrimental effect of constant busyness and distraction is the feeling that your brain is full of worthless clutter, and running the same pace as a dark-skinned gentleman shortly after stumbling on a KKK cross-burning. Consuming hundreds of memes every day will result in anxiety and fatigue. If you allow yourself to be bored on occasion, you’ll probably be less tired at the end of the day. It’s like a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate. Imagine all of the extra stuff that you’d be able to achieve.

Having had the spirit to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you then decide to do will be suffused with more creativity. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics, so if you lack the ability to let yourself be bored, you might want to consider taking a shitload of magic mushrooms instead. Who knows what wonders you’ll create.

“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.” – Sandi Mann

On the surface, being bored seems like a rascal to be avoided, a waste of our precious time. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. Relent to your boredom, you may just stumble on something important.

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.” –  Joseph Brodsky

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The perils of social media

1_P2ly9bSClopyi9qqDAkkYAPhoto by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

Social media has received some devastating blows recently. Cambridge Analytica – the data firm who helped to position the clownish imbecile Donald Trump atop the American Empire – were caught red-handed stealing data for 50 million Facebook users. An associate boasted that the data enabled them to predict a person’s neuroticism, agreeableness, political views, and much more. Without this information, Trump may have lost the election, going so far as to casually boast about it. It’s the tip of a colossal data-collection iceberg that is destroying our trust in social networks, with their blatant and appalling disregard for operating within ethical boundaries.

This was likely a big factor in the recent #DeleteFacebook movement, which encourages users to quit permanently. For the first time since its inception, Facebook reported a decline in U.S users in 2017, though other apps such as Instagram and Twitter are steadily rising. In addition to quitting entirely, roughly 40% of Facebook users are starting to take extended breaks, often deleting the app from their phones.

Fighting against shady data-usage is important, but what’s more insidious are the effects that social networks have on our mental health, particularly for young people. One report showed that symptoms of ill mental health are increased by 15% for children using social media. Facebook and Instagram’s terms of reference state that you shouldn’t be using their services if under the age of 13, but do absolutely nothing to enforce the rules. Why would they? Even pro-capitalist media powerhouses such as the Financial Times and the Economist are calling for more regulation against these alarmingly immoral organisations.

Addiction is a fundamental goal for many social networks, and they’re designed with this in mind. Our primal desire to be liked results in positive chemical rushes whenever somebody validates our post, so we develop a habit in which our eyes compulsively return to the little red circle. The concept of a endless feed utilises the variable ratio schedule, which shows that people become more obsessed with something when rewarded irregularly, rather than steadily. Being presented with the occasional entertaining post is what hooks you.

We don’t sign our children up to pre-credited gambling accounts, hand them a gram of cocaine and suggest that they let loose for the weekend. Yet these things exploit the exact same dopamine-based reward system as social media, with addiction as a dreadful consequence. It effortlessly pulls on our attention, distracting us from vital problems such as climate change, poverty, or Trump’s totalitarianism. The precious hours of our lives are being consumed and vomited into the coffers of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, who “apologise for their mistakes” but not their repulsive business practices.

Even former leaders of tech companies are rallying for change. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit organisation founded by such folk, with the intention to spread the idea of compassionate design starting from a foundation of vulnerable human instincts, as opposed to attention theft at any cost.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” – The Center for Humane Technology

In addition to being attention whores, social media has a devastating effect on our self-esteem. It enables us to compare ourselves to other people on an unprecedented scale, creating pressure to be as allegedly perfect as everyone else, and leaving us in a cesspool of self-loathing. Life isn’t how Facebook and Instagram portrays it; disappointment, rejection, and pain are nowhere to be seen. When such impending things do happen, you can be forgiven for shaking a fist at a God who undeniably hates you.

Any intention to better your life is made more difficult by social media’s blissfully sedative effects. Why bother trying to learn something that you’re passionate about when you can spend hours scrolling through insipid content? Nobody likes discomfort, so social media sucks us in like a prostitute desperate for a fix. The exceptional is cast aside in favour of dull mediocrity.

Clambering over the proverbial fence for a moment, social media does have some positive uses. It’s an effective way to stay in touch with old friends, even if only contacting them once in a blue moon. Many businesses rely on social media for its powerful ability to reach customers, and would struggle desperately without it; movements such as #DeleteFacebook would do well to remember this. Promoting anything (e.g. this blog) would be infinitely harder. A research agency found that Facebook users have more close ties with the people within their network than other internet users. In addition, they noted moderate associations between social media use and trust, plentiful close friends, greater amounts of social support, and higher civic support. It’s easy to be dogmatic about such an immoral industry, but important to realise that it’s not all bad.

Despite the positives, the evidence for the ills of social media are overwhelming. If you’d rather not take the drastic plunge and quit cold turkey, you might want to consider restricting your usage – Chrome extensions such as BlockSite allow you to easily do so. With less use, it’s likely that your life will improve. Just be prepared for the fact that by continuing to use the apps, your data probably will be illegally mined in order to influence your opinions, and to persuade you that you’ll be undeniably happier if you purchase those fetching shoes. The whole structure is completely vulnerable to manipulation, and no amount of new regulation is likely to change that. Greed always finds a way to exploit, and with two billion connected people, social media companies have the power to influence an unfathomable number of people with terrifying precision. Is it a risk worth taking?

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The dangers of approval

1_fpjROQBti3jtZUmoScYb2wPhoto by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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