Relationships are the key to happiness in life. There are countless studies that support this truth. One powerful example comes from Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist, is the 4th and current director of the longest study of human health and happiness (a 75-year project). His takeaway from that study?: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
However, we don’t have to just take Dr. Waldinger’s word for it. We can reflect on our lives to see the truth of this. Think of your happiest times in life. Did they involve other people? If you are like most people, they probably involved fun, engaging experiences with family and friends. Now think of your darkest times in life. Most likely those had to do with being in conflict, rejected, or feeling isolated or lonely. Think that one of the worst punishments that we can inflict upon other human beings is solitary confinement in prison. Research has found that social rejection activates some of the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Thus, it is literally painful to be rejected.
Relationships in the Age of Social Media
There are certainly benefits of social media. Most of us experience these on a daily basis. We share events and experiences and connect with friends and family members in ways that were not possible 15 years ago. One might think, given that relationships are the key to happiness in life, that the connections we have through social media would result in increases in our happiness. This doesn’t seem to be the case though. Overall societal happiness in the U.S. hasn’t improved in the past 15 years. In fact, levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide are going up in teens and young adults. How could this be? Let’s explore 3 of these reasons.
Social Comparison and Social Media
It’s natural for us to compare ourselves to others. We worry about our status and what others think of us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. We are inherently social animals. Historically, we have depended upon one another for survival. If we didn’t care what others thought of us, we wouldn’t last long in a tribe. Because we needed them to survive, we needed to care what they thought of us. We needed to know our status in the group. As hunter-gatherers, we evolved to live in tribes of around 150 people. So, the number of group members with whom we compared ourselves was relatively small. Now, however, social media enables us to compare ourselves to thousands of people. And these aren’t just any people. For example, girls are comparing themselves to models, actresses, pop princesses, and Kim Kardashian. The “social comparison bar” is thus very high. We see what others have and are left wanting. There is solid research to indicate that more time spent on social media is correlated with greater levels of depression.
Social Rejection and Social Media
We like to be liked by others. As social animals, if we didn’t desire this, then we probably wouldn’t have lasted long in a tribe! We depended upon others for our very survival, so it was in our best interest to be liked by others. On the other hand, as stated previously, we feel very bad when rejected by others. It literally hurts. When, through social media, we don’t get as many likes as expected to a post, or we get unfollowed/unfriended, this is experienced as a form of social rejection. So, social media provides many more opportunities for us to experience social rejection. Moreover, when combined with the social comparison aspect, we can experience rejection just because we aren’t getting as many likes to our posts as others are getting.
Displaced Relationships by Social Media
Digital natives are those who grew up in the age of the Internet. In a sense, these folks have always been “connected” in this sense of the word. Digital immigrants, like myself, grew up at a time before the Internet. But from an evolutionary standpoint, we are all digital immigrants. Our brains evolved over millions of years to interact in a world, and with each other, in a way very different from social media, texting, instant messaging, etc. Nature meant for us to connect with one another face-to-face. That’s how we get our deep-rooted connection and psychological needs met. Our screens can be great, but when they start replacing (or displacing) our in-person connections, we are going to pay a price. We often pay this price in the form of increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
Relationships are the key to happiness in life. Our attention shouldn’t be more on our screens and high-tech gadgets than each other. When we lose sight of this, we will pay a price. But if we hit the pause button regularly, we can remind ourselves where the key to our happiness resides: it’s in each other.