Social Media, Addiction and (un)Happiness

According to the World Happiness Report 2013, the term happiness is commonly used in two very distinctive ways.

The first is to describe a combination of positive emotions felt at a specific moment in time (ie. ‘Were you happy yesterday?’).

The second is as an evaluation of ones life satisfaction, which is not moment specific (ie. ‘Are you happy with how things are going in your life?’).

While this difference may sound subtle, but it is thought to play a major role in social media addiction.

The first way people use the term ‘happy’ actually describes pleasure – transient emotions which only feel good while you’re doing whatever it is that is pleasurable. As soon as it’s all over, the ‘happy’ feelings leave.

If you manage to string enough moments of pleasure together in a short period of time, they can look and feel a lot like happiness. This is how social media works.

Chemically speaking, pleasure is controlled by Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine rewards you for ‘seeking’ behaviours (such as chasing likes) while Serotonin rewards you for achieving success (such as gaining likes). This system is great for motivating us to perform behaviours that help our species survive – searching for food and potential partners. However, despite what some may think, social media is not thought to be a major factor in helping our species survive.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (O’Keeffe 2011) identified a rapid increase in what researchers call ‘Facebook Depression’. Adolescents who spend a great deal of time on social media websites have been shown to be at risk of developing, ‘classic symptoms of depression.’

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that social media provides rapid hits of validation, which may cause spikes in Dopamine and Serotonin levels. The problem is that both Dopamine and Serotonin have relatively short half-lives (they only stay in our system for 2-10 minutes). The sharp drop in these hormones, when the ‘likes’ run out, is thought to be a large influence in the development of depression. Even scarier, Dopamine had been identified as an influential modulator in the mechanism of addiction (Hyman 2006).

The instant gratification social media provides may contribute to an unstable chemical environment similar to that experienced by addicts.

So, how can we prevent this from happening to us? The answer lies in understanding the difference between pleasure and happiness.

Researcher Dr Paul Zak believes that the key to long-term happiness is the chemical Oxytocin. He goes as far as to dub it ‘the love hormone.’ This hormone is thought to be responsible for feelings of connection, closeness and, you guessed it, love. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to release much Oxytocin while online. This is because the main stimuli for the release of Oxytocin are physical contact, extended eye contact and orgasm. It is pretty hard to achieve any of these while online.

Researcher Seligman weighs into this discussion, in his 2004 TED Talk, where he states that,

‘The difference between people that are extremely happy and those that are not, is not that they are more religious, in better shape, have more money, are better looking or experience more good events and fewer bad events. The one way in which they differ is that they are extremely social. Each is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends.

Unfortunately, ‘online only’ friends don’t really count. Dr Zak’s prescription for a happy life, ‘8 hugs a day’, requires physical, in person contact, the type that social media doesn’t facilitate. Sending someone an online ‘poke’ is unlikely to increase your Oxytocin levels, particularly when compared with ‘poking’ someone in person.

So, rather than spending time chasing likes, follows and re-tweets, maybe it’s time to take a break, get out, and make contact with real life people. Shake hands, high five, hug and hold extended eye contact. Every little bit contributes to your long-term happiness.

The rest of the components of happiness are the basis of our eBook The No-Bull Pathway to Happiness. In it we look at the 3 other components of long term happiness and how you can implement them immediately. To help spread the HSL love, for a limited time we are giving you a FREE copy of the eBook. All you have to do is tell us where to send it (below).

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