Living Wisely in the Digital Age

Part 1: Social Media | By Kevin Ferguson

Attributed to Banksy

Recently I’ve become happier. That’s not to say that before now I was unhappy — I wasn’t — but I’ve definitely never been one of those people whose disposition is so bright it makes you want to don sunglasses and take a few steps backward and hit them in the head with a baseball bat. My baseline happiness is (I think) about normal and when I’m not stressed or anxious I’m often of the opinion that life is pretty darn great. This phenomenon isn’t unique to me; pluck away our anxieties and we’d all be walking around smiling and saying hello to strangers like we do on vacations, which are so wonderful not due to the incredible vistas or carnal pleasures (although they’re very nice) but from the respite they offer from the daily anxieties and stresses of normal life. Out of sight, out of mind.

This realization — remove stress, increase happy — came three months ago when I was invited to drive down to Ventura, CA with some friends for a long weekend. Six of us stayed in a beach house and spent our days reading, playing frisbee, and splashing around in the waves on an empty beach and our nights dancing and drinking and watching movies together. I can’t remember another time in which I was so consistently living in the moment. For the entire weekend, there was no place I’d have rather been.

On the second day, as my friends were playing volleyball and I sat and read, toes in the sand, I remember closing my book and beginning to let my mind wander. I felt a sense of real calm in listening to the laughter of my friends and the waves crashing, as if I had been unchained from mental shackles I hadn’t even been aware of, like how you don’t notice the kitchen is smoking up until you walk into another room and see it from a different perspective. How long it had been since I had just sat and thought?

Ventura waves crashing.

Like almost everyone I know, I treat my phone like a Kensei treats his blade — as an extension of my body and mind — but with one important difference: during my day-to-day it’s unsheathed and sheathed countless times, often with a purpose (“What is the proper term for a Japanese sword-master?”), but, unlike the sword-master, who never removes his blade if he doesn’t have to, I often pull my phone out of my pocket for no reason at all, automatically, whenever there is a spare moment of rest in my day. Without thinking I go through the 1, 2, 3, 4 check; Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. It’s not unusual for me to spend hours per day in my phone-world, in an often mindless state somewhere between absorption and boredom. For most of us, every last drop of our day is filled with media, from the moment we turn off our alarms in the morning to the moment we drift into dream-world at night.

In neuroscience, Default Network is the name for the cortical regions associated with Stimulus Independent Thought — the kind of mind-wandering that accompanies periods where there are no external demands for thinking, like reading or participating in an activity or consuming social media. This state of mind has long been thought essential to problem solving and creativity. Einstein allegedly thought up his famous equation while riding along on his bicycle. We need periods of mental peace to solve problems. Think of the challenge of remembering a lost word or name or phrase that’s at the tip of your tongue. No matter how hard we try to capture its essence, it’s only when we allow our mind to wander independently that it gently bubbles back up to the surface of our consciousness. Why! Think what problems we could solve if we chose pondering over entertainment during our moments of rest!

As a citizen of the modern age, I’m pretty much always stressed out about something or other, at least a little. Career, money, relationships, and the ever-daunting problem of the future are typical contenders, and they all revolve around the feeling that what I currently have isn’t good enough. But the thing is, when I take a step backward and think about it, this feeling is ridiculous. I have an incredible life filled with a million things to be thankful for. I live in a wonderful city, have amazing friends and much freedom in how I spend my time. My life is great. Still, as much as I remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for (everything, basically), the feeling that I deserve more, more, more than what I have keeps me up at night.

Writer, philosopher, and person-I’d-very-much-like-one-day-to-have-dinner-with Alain de Botton analyzes this topic in length in his wonderful book (and documentary) Status Anxiety. De Botton makes the observation that feelings of disappointment about our lives come not from not having something — a meaningful job or relationship, the latest gadget, an enviable apartment — but from the feeling that we could expect to get it. This presents a perfect challenge for today’s young-adults, whose expectations surrounding work, relationships, and life-fulfillment are higher than they have ever been.

From a psychological point of view, de Botton’s argument makes perfect sense. It’s well known that humans aren’t that great at making choices or determining what they need or want. The paradox of choice, the term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book of the same title, is a perfect example. Schwartz presents an effective argument that boils down to ‘less is more’. According to the paradox of choice, the more choices we have, the more difficulty we’ll have choosing and the less confident we’ll be about our choices. Although a bigger pool of options allows for more variation and therefore a better possible outcome, according to Schwartz it also leads to indecision, which in certain areas can be catastrophic — think how, in showing people endless streams of possible matches, dating apps like Tinder create an environment where people have a tough time settling. Heck, our true soulmate could be just another swipe away! It’s not just our choices that we are troubled by, however. In all areas of uncertainty, we look to our environment to determine what our desires should be, and this means making comparisons.

In Status Anxiety, de Botton discusses the problem of comparisons as it relates to envy. It is the classic keeping-up-with-the-Joneses problem; with no divine measuring stick to tell us how we’re faring, we look to our peers to tell us what it is we should expect to have accomplished in our lives. This much has always been the case, but for today’s youth, young-adults and even adults, what constitutes our ‘peers’ is wider than ever. Together, mass media, the internet, social media (which has humanized our celebrities), and the idea that we are all ‘created equal’, have exploded our comparison group to include just about everyone on earth. No longer are we limited to feel envious of just our physical social network and perhaps people we see on the news — any citizen of Twitter or Instagram or Facebook is fair game. In today’s digital age, with social media never out of reach, the measuring sticks are more pervasive and easy-to-read than ever.

With a culture of high-expectations that emphasizes individualism, a struggling job market, and social media comparisons constantly in our face, it’s no wonder that young adults are the most stressed out generation. Although we can’t easily change our culture or the job market, we can change how we use social media. Now don’t you worry — I’m not advocating for a ban on social media. Like you, I’ve got a few friends who proudly preach that they deleted their Facebook or that they don’t have Instagram or Twitter. Unlike you, this statement usually ends in me imagining some sort of physical harm befalling them for their pomposity (same thing for people who use words like ‘Pomposity’). I, for one, love that people have new and unique ways to build and maintain meaningful relationships. There’s no doubt that the Big Four social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter & Snapchat) add a lot of value to people’s lives, but they’re also the main avenue through which we make comparisons with our peers, acquaintances, even celebrities, and because those comparisons are often what we base our life-expectations on, these platforms can lead to anxiety about our place in the world.

‘Mobile Lovers’ attributed to Banksy. Bristol, England, Apr 2014.

The two main problems with social media content are (1) there’s too much of it, and (2) most of it doesn’t promote well-being. Social media is like an endless pantry lined with tasty but addictive treats. Worse, the pantry is a labyrinth. Chips, snickers bars, pizza, mini-donuts and other delectables line the halls (the avocado and sprouts on whole grain toast, ahi tuna salads, and other healthy options are few and far between). The labyrinth calls to us at every moment of boredom or rest — and usually we answer by pulling our phones out of our pockets; swipe, tap, tap, scroll. If the content that filled our social media pantry was healthy this wouldn’t be a big problem, but the articles and videos we consume rarely provide lasting enrichment to our lives and the pictures and posts rarely, if ever, enrich our relationships. And yet in 2014 the average user spent almost 2 hours on social media per day — and that was in 2014! The number has surely risen this year. Even though we can readily admit this is a problem, it’s much easier to just go with the flow. Comparisons, right? Everyone’s in the pantry. No big deal.

Mindlessly wandering to the fridge or pantry at home when bored is a habit we’ve all had, and if the items available to eat are unhealthy, so we will become unhealthy. If, however, we stock our fridges and pantries with only the healthiest, freshest ingredients, we can win the battle before it begins. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t enter the social media pantry — hey, a guy’s gotta eat — but that we have the power to fill our pantry with healthier foods and shape it such that we can clearly find the exit.

Back on the beach in Ventura I opened my book and continued reading, the crashing waves and the laughter of my friends fading into the background. That night we had dinner and a few drinks at a restaurant called Social Tap that we biked to on our beach cruisers before drinking wine and laughing deep into the dark of the night on a blanket on the beach. There was dancing. I may have gotten naked and gone in the ocean. Life was unbelievably great.

The next week, when I got back to real life (meaning the internet, social media, my phone, ugh.), I felt inundated and frustrated by the emptiness of it all; the click-bait headlines, the worthless articles, the statuses and pictures of friends that didn’t make me feel close to them. I felt like most of my time was spent skimming atop the lives of people I didn’t care about and reading articles and watching videos designed to pull me in for ad money. Perhaps you’ve felt the same. Most of the content I was consuming on social media wasn’t improving my life — in fact, by taking up so much of my leisure thinking time and nudging me to make unfavorable comparisons to my peer group, it was harming it. I was annoyed, but didn’t want to delete my profiles. So, I went about trying to figure out how to get better content in my news feeds. My solution was simple: I would go on an unfollow-spree, ruthlessly trashing all the addictive junk foods from my social media pantry.

Is this possible on Facebook? I wondered. Then I made a very wonderful discovery that has changed my life; the down-caret at the top right of posts:

Turns out you can unfollow people, media outlets, websites, basically anyone or anything that shares on Facebook! Nice. I decided to ruthlessly unfollow everyone and everything that didn’t directly add to my well-being. I did the same thing for Twitter & Instagram, unfollowing (or, on Twitter, muting those people I didn’t want to offend by unfollowing). After a few weeks of pruning my news feeds, I decided to just go full-stop on Facebook. I unfollowed literally every friend and every liked page on my Facebook (to do this, go to your profile, then click friends tab, hover your mouse over the down-caret and uncheck ‘Get Notifications’ on every. single. one. Then find each of your ‘liked’ pages and do the same. It’s tedious and took me like 15 minutes). I figured I’d try it, see how I like it, and then refollow my close friends and maybe a few select news sources that I thought were worthwhile. After completely emptying my pantry, my newsfeed looked like this:

“Did you see that video?” No, no I didn’t.

No newsfeed.

Merely a week of having the emptiness jolt me back into the present moment forced me to re engage with the real world in the same way I had in Ventura. The freedom was so nice that now, three months later, I still have no newsfeed and I’m happier with my decision every day. Now I check Facebook for notifications and maybe to check what my friends are up to, but I can’t get lost in the newsfeed, because there isn’t one. I absolutely love it.

As for Twitter and Instagram, I’ve self-regulated my following count to a very manageable number. On Instagram, I follow ~150 people, so that, if I check right now (…) there are only three pictures I hadn’t seen in the past six hours. On Twitter, I follow 66 people (probably a third of which are muted, shh!), so it’s not a lot. On Snapchat, I try to avoid watching the stories for fear of fomo.

Now, I hear the latest world or local news from my friends, which I like better than reading the articles myself. I’m a little under-informed, but that’s my doing — I could easily just go to a news site and catch up. I just don’t care that much. As for being updated on their lives, I’m not. I only have like 15 close friends, and I see them regularly enough that it doesn’t matter. For me, living wisely meant knowing I couldn’t change my habit of checking social media, so instead I’ve designed my social media so I can get in and out of phone-world without getting lost in the pantry.

I recommend you do the same.

Written By: Kevin Ferguson

Kevin Ferguson is a writer, magician, comedian and terrible singer based out of San Francisco. If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button. For more like this, subscribe to Kevin’s writing by clicking the ‘follow’ button below.