How Our Use of Social Media Fuels Envy, Comparison, Anxiety, and Depression
Through social media we have a continual window into the lives of friends, pseudo-friends, and celebrities. And what we see is not some unvarnished peek into their world but a highly idealized image that they present. We see only the most exciting images from their vacations, the happy faces of their friends, and children, accounts of their continual self-improvement, the fascinating people they are meeting, the great causes and projects they are involved in, the example of success in their endeavors. — Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
A few weeks ago I was looking at my Rescuetime dashboard and saw that I’d spent about an hour and 45 minutes on Facebook in September. Then I noticed some other interesting patterns:
- I’d hit my goal of publishing something twice a week
- Our revenue at Unmistakable Creative had increased
- I was in a much better mood than I had been in the months prior
Excessive use of social media gradually erodes our attention and shifts it from rewarding activities like expressing our creativity and doing deep work to comparison, envy, and status anxiety.
There was a time when social media served as a great way to connect with friends and family members and keep up with what’s going on in their lives. But as the algorithms designed to capture our attention have become more sophisticated, we only see things like engagements, babies, and significant accomplishments. We often don’t see posts from our closest friends or family members. Every time we write a status update or upload a picture, we’re measured, gradually becoming desensitized to the toxic impact of quantifying our humanity. This leads us to keep feeding the beast and attempting to outdo what we did before, resulting in a perpetual state of anxiety.
A Prioritization of Resume Values Over Eulogy Values
Thanks to the power of social media anyone can become famous. And they can become famous for being famous, not accomplishing something of depth, substance or value. 40% of high school students have the goal of being famous. In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks makes the distinction between resume values and eulogy values.
The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being-whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful: what kind of relationships you formed. — David Brooks, The Road to Character
Our addiction to social media leads us to prioritize resume values instead of eulogy values. It causes us to value clicks over character, eyeballs over hearts, and attention over affection But, what’s the point in having 5000 “friends” if you couldn’t call one of them to bail you out of jail at 2 am? Your likes, tweets, fan and follower counts aren’t going to be written on your tombstone.
Self Obsession, Envy, and Comparison
A few months ago I was wandering through a bookstore in Boulder and stumbled upon Will Storr’s book Selfie: How We Became So Self Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.
“We are living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be impossibly perfect twenty-first century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body, or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any of the myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic”says Storr.
The inevitable byproduct of our self-obsession is comparison, envy, anxiety, and depression.
Sometime last week I logged on to Twitter. I saw a tweet from one of our recent guests on the Unmistakable Creative podcast. His book was one of the top-selling books on Amazon. Within minutes of reading that tweet, I felt envious that his book had sold far more copies than mine. If I didn’t have a twitter account, I wouldn’t have even known.
Comparison is toxic to our creativity and our well being. There’s always someone who has more…. more fans, followers, traffic, likes, etc. Social media-fueled comparison is a game in which there is no endpoint. It causes us to lose sight of the fact that we are getting a deliberately curated, highly filtered one-dimensional view of someone’s life. And we forget just how much joy can be found in creating for an audience of one.
Study after study shows that social media contributes to symptoms of anxiety and depression. The variable reward and addictive design of nearly every social platform keep us coming back from more, but never satiating our desire for attention.
Instant Applause vs. Earned Attention
Part of what fueled social media’s rapid ascent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you.”— Cal Newport, Deep Work
Anytime somebody asks me how to build an audience for their work. I tell them to focus on mastery instead of metrics. Because habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, this requires a long-term view.
We live in a world where we have unparalleled access to instant applause. Share a picture of a baby, an engagement, a wedding, or an announcement and you’ll receive instant applause. But instant applause is not an accomplishment. When I interviewed Ryan Holiday about his book Ego is the Enemy, he said he never talks about a book until it is finished. Posting about something you haven’t actually accomplished gives you a delusional sense of accomplishment. And all of us, myself included are guilty of doing this.
Instant applause causes us to focus on the prize instead of the process. We overvalue moments in the spotlight over time spent doing the work, even though the latter is where the majority of your time has to be spent for any significant creative accomplishment.
If you want to get the attention of an audience, rather than trying to figure out how to get their attention, focus on creating something worthy of their attention, In the long run, the only viable strategy to build an audience for your work is to be so good they can’t ignore you.
Develop a Mindful Relationship With Social Media
All of our behavior is a byproduct of our environment. And to develop a more mindful and deliberate relationship with social media, you have to design your environment deliberately. All of the following should be deliberate choices:
- Notification settings on the apps you use
- Location of app icons on your phone or desktop
- Times when you will use social media
- Times when you will block distractions and do deep work
As I said in An Audience of One when your relationship with technology is not mindful, you become its slave instead of its master. When you are mindful about how you use technology, it’s easier to compare less and create more.
Fortunately, people are becoming more and more aware of the negative impact that our addiction to these apps are having on our mental health:
- Jaron Lanier wrote an excellent book titled 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts
- A young group of high school students started an initiative called October Offline.
Unlike current social networks that modify our behavior, erode our attention, and sell it to advertisers, social networks of the future should allow us to connect genuinely, face to face, in person, the way we should. Otherwise, we will remain connected but isolated, and in the words of Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage
I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.