Being Liked Won’t Make You Happier

We spend more of our lives on social than we do eating and drinking. It’s time to rethink our diet.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

We spend more of our lives on social than we do eating and drinking. It’s time to rethink our diet.

My Reading Room

The internet wasn’t just meant to make us happy. It was supposed to be utopia.

We would all, the cyber pioneers promised, become connected. Mankind’s accumulated wisdom would be at our fingertips. There would be no hierarchy. We would be free. Everything would be free.

Yeah, right, you might think. Bathed, as I am now, in the glow of three Slack notifications, 12 Chrome tabs, and 39 unread e-mails, it’s easy to be cynical. But between global video calls (Skype), limitless educational resources (Wikipedia), and cartographic omniscience (Google Maps/Earth), only the most myopic Luddite could deny the riches the digital era has wrought.

Trouble is, to paraphrase Kendrick Lamar, the road to riches comes with many lanes.

The few studies that explicitly set out to measure the impact of online access on life satisfaction have found it has a positive effect – especially for the disenfranchised. The problem is that this type of research tends to be a Rorschach blot, shapeshifting to match your opinion.

You can find studies claiming Facebook makes you depressed or that it makes you happy; Twitter is a force for good or it’s a refuge for trolls and cyberbullies. In fact, the one thing on which we can all agree is that when, around 2010, the internet leapt from our desks to our pockets, our worlds changed.

The brain despises leaving tasks unfinished. But the birth of the web sounded the death knell for the idea of completion. On the internet, nothing ends. You can always do just that little bit more. And here’s the rub: The net result is constant low-level anxiety.

E-mails stream in at all hours; your Instagram feed scrolls forever; Youtube starts playing the next video without you flexing so much as a cuticle.

In theory, it’s easy: Just put the phone down. But the central problem is crystallised by a “design ethicist” in Adam Alter’s recent book, Irresistible: “There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down [your] self-regulation.” 

Attention is the web’s currency, and the online world is built to seduce and to addict. Perhaps most infamously, freemium mobile games have perfected the art of weaponising your brain chemistry against you.

Games like Clash of Clans draw you in by hammering your brain’s dopamine button with fast “level-up” progress. Once you’re hooked, they intertwine, making headway with loosening your wallet. In 2015, Clash of Clans earned its creator about US$5 million a day.

While, in normal life, 30 percent of communication is self-involved, on social media this climbs to 80 percent, with every “like” and repost further spiking your pleasure hormones – albeit temporarily, like a nauseating sugar rush.

It’s a hackneyed trope to claim that the web changes our brains – just reading this sentence changes your brain.

But our smartphones have even started rewiring our nervous systems. If you’ve ever mistakenly whipped your phone out thinking it’s buzzed, only to be greeted by a black mirror, you’ve been a victim of phantom vibration syndrome. Our lives, it seems, are now so entwined with notifications that we perceive an itch as an oscillation.

It’s fashionable to prescribe a “digital detox,” but hardly practical. The best advice, perhaps, is that knowledge is power. Apps like Breakfree will tell you exactly how much time your phone swallows. And, after all, it’s only one more thing to check.

TEXT ED VANSTONE ILLUSTRATION MASTERFILE