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How social media prevented me from creativity: an analogy using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Last December, I deleted my Instagram account, almost by accident. In the subsequent days, I felt like a voluntarily quarantined social media addict, my hands twitching as it was no longer constantly cradling my phone. Multiple times a day, my fingers would involuntarily search for the app, only to be rudely reminded that I had already deleted it. I was disturbed by how addictive my tendencies were — social media seemed like a mental drug that I didn’t even know I had taken.

Only after a prolonged week or so, did my dependency on social media start to wane. The absence of this addiction resulted in a sobriety I haven’t felt in so long, it was an out of body experience.

I stood in an elevator, and observed those around me, head bent intently over their phones. I let myself be bored while waiting for a friend at a cafe. I picked up reading novels again, in addition to scrolling through more articles online. I felt I partcipated in more of my surroundings and also had a more prolonged attention as a result of my month away from social media.

The constructs of social media and society thrive on an obsessive consumption culture. Social applications, such as Instagram perpetuates this theory, a if-you-just-buy-this- outfit-like-mine-you’ll-be-as-carefree-and-as-happy-as-I-am fantasy.

Taking a time out from this exposure made it evident to me that a habit of consuming was learned behavior, fueled by the enormous amount of advertising we are exposed to constantly. By reducing my passive and active intake of this information, I felt my need to buy things reduce significantly; and not surprisingly, my free time also increased because I was no longer dedicated to activities that related to buying things (ie. online bargains, price comparisons, etc).

With my new found hours in the day, I was able to fill the consumption void with something better — creativity.

Consume less, create more

However, if you are out of practice of creating, this may be very hard to do. (after all, it took me nine months to write this article!)

I liken this to Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

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At the bottom is your basic needs.

It’s easy to get stuck in this bottom part of the pyramid. Psychological and safety needs are must-haves. Food, clothing, and a decent home is required for us to feel secure; before these are fulfilled, it is hard to think about much else.

However, it seems that even after we have met and greatly exceeded our most elemental necessities, it is easy to be anchored to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. This is why even though a spur-of-the-moment purchase can bring us momentary happiness, but it is not easily sustained (unless by another purchase).

If you have ever felt restless or dissatisfied despite having savings in your bank account and a roof over your head, perhaps it’s time to look beyond these layers and strive to climb up towards self actualization.

But even starting can be challenging, if you don’t make some changes.

By taking myself off social media, I was able to remove distractions and focus on self-directed initiatives. I had more time to brush up my mandarin, take additional driving lessons, and work on passion projects I’ve put on the backburner due to “lack of time.” One of these was taking the time to write more and cultivate my own voice.

During this period, I also developed a new perspective on creatives, who were constantly operating in the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid. Perhaps my practicality was my own worst enemy, keeping me anchored to my safety and basic needs, long after I had surpassed it. Practical goals such as growing my savings account suddenly seemed much less important than before.

I’d argue that after the first two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, you can choose to pursue each additional layer, in no definitive order. By deleting apps like Instagram, I removed myself from being a target of advertisers, in addition to the false sense of community and belonging of social applications. The sense of belonging and self-esteem layers often needs the input of others and can be difficult to control. In addition, with social media photos capturing a perfectly (most likely) staged moment, I am not sure it creates an inclusive environment and can elevate self-esteem for its viewers. It seems in many cases to be, the exact opposite.

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In conclusion, overconsumption of social media is much more detrimental than we perceive it to be. It blocks our capacity to focus on activities that increase self-actualisation, by chaining us to our lower psychological needs and feeding us a false sense of belonging. In the end, these things may not build up our self esteem, but rather work to tear it down.

By lowering the proportion of time spent satisfying our already fulfilled safety and basic needs, and increasing our time on self-actualisation type of activities, we may find that creating will come more easily and more often, along with an unintended benefit of more sustained purpose.

For more on this topic, please see below references: