Social Media and How to Be Happy
Why selfies won’t make you feel any better
A man once said, “Upadhi dukkhassa mūlanti,” which means, “Attachment is the root of suffering.” That man was Buddha—among the chillest guys to ever walk the earth.
Though the quote is actually not Buddha’s (it is merely a line from the Pali canon), and people often misinterpret it to mean that having things is evil, we can learn a lot from the teachings of good ol’ Gautama. He was such an expert on sincere happiness and deep satisfaction in life that they attribute an entire philosophy to his teachings. Gautama Buddha knew the secret, it seems, to be happy in life.
If he still lived today, however, he would probably be appalled by how unhappy everyone is. He’d see people taking pictures of themselves, frowning as they check the photos. He’d notice how people type smileys or append “haha” to the end of every sentence, but never once crack a smile in front of their screens. Worst of all, he’d see how much people people write, on their Facebook walls and Instagram feeds, “I’m happy,” regardless of it being true ot not.
But wait, you say. You don’t actually do that last one. But think about it: every update of your life, every pre-meal picture and every new cover photo (hopefully with proper “credits to owner”) is really just a declaration of “I’m happy,” or “I’m doing great.” You might say you’re just posting to keep people informed, but if that’s the case, why do you curate your posts so much? No, you have a goal when you post, whether you’re conscious of it or not. You are actually posting to compete in the grand contest of who has the better life, and in this competition, you must be the loudest to announce to the world, “I’m freaking happy.”
The truth is that few people actually are, regardless of what it says on social media. In fact, social media may be making us sadder. When you see how well your friends are doing, you don’t feel as if your life is up to par. It’s as if you’re missing out. So, you must tell the world how happy you are, too, when in reality, we’re all just playing the same game of overcompensation.
Despite its much-vaunted goal of connecting us to people in our lives, social media often only grants the most shallow of connections. We know our Facebook friends’ posts, but not what they’re thinking. We know their faces, but not how they’re feeling. All of it is curated anyway, and on social media, these friends will only ever show you the best part of themselves. There’s never a feeling that you know someone through their posts. You only ever know whom they’re trying to be.
With that, social media is inherently alienating. Those hundreds upon hundreds of friends you have—which among them do you still really see? We are actually farther from our friends than if we’d talked in person and seen how they really are, untyped and unedited. Without that realness, social media becomes something that is convenient but unsatisfactory, and ultimately, kind of sad.
What should we do then? You say: I want to keep using social media, but I want to be happy. Then let us turn to an expert. Let us ask Buddha.
Upadhi dukkhassa mūlanti. Attachment is the root of suffering. People often misinterpret this to mean that having things is evil, or in this case, that social media is evil. What it actually means, however, is that being attached to social media is evil. Less cryptically, it means you should pay less attention to both your online persona and the online personas of your friends.
Try this: Post a short, sincere feeling on your wall. Don’t post what you’re thinking—you’ll only worry about whether you’re thinking about the right things. Don’t post an idea or opinion—you’d only be doing it to get a point across. Don’t post a long and well-thought out piece—you’ll only be curating yourself. And don’t post a photo. You can frame, angle and filter a photo, but you can’t edit an experience. Post only a feeling.
Slow down for a moment, and really try to examine what’s going on inside you. Don’t analyze it. Just slow down, sit still and allow yourself to settle into your current emotion. Now post.
Did you write, “I’m happy”? Hopefully, but probably not. It might be “I’m sad.” It might be “I’m lonely.” You could cheat and post something safe and neutral, like “I’m bored” or “I’m sleepy”...but we’re aiming for something raw and real.
This exercise can be scary at first. You’ll find yourself second-guessing your own feelings. Maybe you’re afraid of letting people know. You end up trying to predict how they’ll react, how they’ll think of you. Stop! That is the attachment. That is you giving in to the fear and unhappiness that plague social media.
Just let people react how they will. The most important thing is to be honest to yourself, and in turn, be honest to them. Let them get a glimpse of the real you behind the many versions of you. Show the self behind the selfie. It will feel freeing, not only for you, but for others as well.
When you are true to yourself, there is nothing for anyone else to compare themselves to. Sure, someone can easily post a better vacation pic than yours, but they cannot post, “I’m happier.” They don’t know how happy you are...only that you are, and that maybe they are, too.
Continue to do this every now and then, hopefully inspiring your friends to do the same. When people stop comparing themselves to others, and just stop to feel, maybe they’ll realize how equal we all really are. That’s the kind of community social media has the power to create. We only need to use it in the most sincere way possible.
(P.S. That’s also not a saying from Buddha.)