In pursuit of happiness on social media

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I got a snapshot of the darkness within social media. The mass provocation feels like organised crime or some brazen form of online guerrilla warfare.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Tue 27 Jul 2021, 11:47 PM

When I was viciously trolled on Twitter, I resorted to the judicious response of no response, following the popular memo, “don’t feed the troll”. So, a collision course was cautiously averted.

Yet, I got a snapshot of the darkness within social media. The mass provocation feels like organised crime or some brazen form of online guerrilla warfare. They emerge like a swarm of locusts from nowhere and target one individual at a time. As a group they thrive on a deep sense of belonging, acting upon group norms. Perhaps deep down, we never really evolved from our hunter-gatherer days. We still hunt in packs.

“Where do you live?” asks a troll. No matter how brave you are, you pause momentarily to think about the broader implications of this more-than-a-veiled threat. Then you remember that this is how women have been targeted on social media. Nothing extraordinary about it. You move on to yet another tweet.

With the volume of social media activity, the diversity of chatter, and the constant ebb and flow of what’s trending, it is hard to unscramble the noise. We wonder if the tweets and posts make us truly happy. Whether the one who posts is happier than the one who passively scrolls. Researchers have often cautioned that mindless scrolling on social media could make us unhappy. However, a recent longitudinal study advanced a contrarian view. Spread over nine years, the study found no correlation between the well-being of adolescents in Germany and their social media usage. Another three-week study on adolescents aged 13-15 found that browsing may result in positive, negative, or no effects among individuals, based on a range of dispositional, developmental, social, and situational factors. In short, it depends.

It goes without saying that our use of Instagram or Facebook cannot merely be an exercise in self-inflicted pain. It must offer some joy, however fleeting it might be, like that piece of chocolate you relished so much knowing that you may regret it later. How else could we explain the more than 2 hours of average daily usage of social media.

The notion of happiness is more than just a basic human emotion. Psychologies, sociologists, economists and now governments are preoccupied with the idea of happiness. In the UAE, improving happiness has been the driving force behind citizen services. Happiness has become central to governance and how we gauge progress. By that count, social media has implications on our overall happiness given that it is so embedded in our daily life. Despite numerous studies, experts are divided on whether social media makes us happy in the long run.

However, there is consensus that social media is a place for demonstrating our happiness. The UN World Happiness report had ranked Finland as the happiest country for three years in a row. A recent research report named ‘#Happy: Constructing and Sharing Everyday Understandings of Happiness on Instagram’ investigated what amounts to happiness on Instagram for users from Finland. Researchers found that happiness on Instagram is associated with the seven dominant themes of social relationships, material possessions, free time, nature, physical appearance, pets, and success. The study was careful to describe this everyday happiness as one that is ‘constructed’ on Instagram. Social media posts allow us to tune into socially accepted notions of happiness. My posts about a rooster I meet during my morning runs always elicit a happy reaction.

Social representation theories suggest the inseparability of the individual from the social, so that people are passively mirroring shared group values. For example, amidst the distraught appeals for help during the second Covid-19 wave in India, fun posts were rarely seen. Earlier in the year, when British celebrities posted their destination photos, their followers back home who were still under lockdown, were not impressed.

The Instagram study showed that our carefully curated happiness on social media is caught between the three dichotomies of social-individual, relaxing-pursuing and immaterial-material. A sense of pride is associated with ‘self-orientation’, while gratitude is associated with ‘other-orientation’. Our own wall is largely a collection of happy timestamps when a reunion, an anniversary, a travel, or a meal was memorable. Because happiness is stage-managed online, it is hard to tell if social media stimulates happiness.

Post Covid-19, our general focus has gone beyond happiness to a desire for well-being, which is a broader perception that life is going well. There is a sense of purpose and balance in work and life. Yet a constant state of well-being does not occur to the best of us. We try, nonetheless.

Our persistent endeavour for well-being can be hit-and-miss because social media is essentially an echo chamber of our own emotional predisposition, even when we are scavenging for updates. There is also a compliant algorithm that is prodding us.

When we are using social media in a constructive manner, connecting with friends, giving advice, providing support and being empathetic, we tend to have a greater degree of well-being. It has also become our coping mechanism during the pandemic. Users have had a nuanced response to social support on social media platforms during quarantine. A study of French users showed that social support provided on Instagram and Twitter had a positive correlation with satisfaction with life. Surprisingly, social support provided on Facebook was quite the opposite. It is believed that support on Facebook possibly reactivates emotional trauma. This explains why some people exit Facebook or become inactive when they suffer a loss in the family.

Overall social media tends to mirror the mental state we go in with. The duality of social media is what makes it such an alluring place. Despite widespread trolling, we are constantly going from post to post, looking for life-affirming stories and happy endings. It is sometimes hard to rationalise the rabid exchange of barbs with the joyous likes and shares. Yet in all these years, social media has come to reflect life in all its colours. In the end, Twitter or Facebook balances out the good with the bad.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies. She tweets at @shaliniverma1.

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