How It All Started
“Crying in a bunk bed in a hostel is ridiculous.”
I was trying to suppress my tears.
Moments earlier, I had seen a holiday picture that reminded me of my Uruguayan ex. I missed her.
Breaking up with her turned out to be the best decision I ever made, but I didn’t know it yet.
I felt a strong urge to talk to someone who would understand. Looking through my Whatsapp and Facebook contacts, there was no-one I could talk to.
I was lying in a shabby hostel bed. A drunk guy just stumbled through the door. At that moment I felt like I was way too old to stay in dorms while traveling.
I felt lonely. Isolated from the world. Disconnected because of a time difference of 7 hours and a profound anxiety of calling friends. What would I say? “Hey, I know we never talk on the phone but I felt like I needed to talk to you”. Might have worked, but I was too scared.
I admit: I suck at keeping in touch with friends. And social media is not helping.
Right now I’m sitting in a 5 star hotel room in Bogota, Colombia. I’ve been traveling through this country for over a month. I had a lot of crazy experiences, but I didn’t post a single picture on Facebook or Instagram.
I went “off the grid”. Here’s why.
I’m trapped in loops
“Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said “Here, perform everything, to each other, all the time for no reason.” It’s prison. It’s horrific.” – Bo Burnham
Numbing my mind with 9gag memes and endless Facebook scrolling makes me sad. But this tiny little pathway in my brain disagrees. It forces me to type “9” in the search bar. As soon as it sees that first “funny” picture it receives a tiny jolt of positive energy, strengthening itself.
There are millions of things I could be doing right now. I could go to the nearest park and breathe in fresh air, play with a dog or walk barefoot in the fresh grass. I could go up to the nearest girl and say “Hi”, and see what happens. But I’m stuck in front of the screen. When I’m not looking at the big screen I’m looking at the small screen.
I know what my purpose is. I want to create. I don’t even care whether it’s writing, creating videos or making apps. Every second I’m not creating, I’m wasting time.
A new concept recently entered my mind. Every activity you do is either constructive or destructive. Going out drinking all night until you black out? Destructive. Going to the gym? Constructive.
These are pretty clear cut, but there are more difficult cases. What about watching Netflix? As long as you do it to relax, it’s fine. If you do it to escape your responsibilities for 10 hours straight, it’s pretty damn destructive.
Joking around with old friends on Facebook? Constructive! Getting depressed because of all the amazing stuff people are doing on your Facebook feed? Destructive!
Thomas has got his shit together
One single thought in the morning can make you miserable for the rest of the day. The first thing I used to do in the morning is check my Facebook feed. But why would I check out the highlights of other people’s lives without interacting with them?
I know this is a sensitive topic. Some people are so deep in the wormhole that they don’t see the ridiculous nature of what they’re doing. Do you get sad when you only get 5 likes on your new profile picture? Why?
This picture is a few weeks old. I’m holding a manta ray on some tropical island:
If you see this picture, you might think “Wow, Thomas has got his shit together. I sure could use a holiday”.
This is a picture of me crying and binging on fast food. I’m watching the same episode of HIMYM for the gazillionth time:
(This might be staged, but it’s an accurate representation of that night)
The reasons why I was feeling miserable:
- I have no clue what I’m doing
- I do not own a car nor a house
- I feel like I’m losing touch with the friends I care about most because we’re on different paths in life
- Most people my age are settling down
Both of these events happened on the same day.
Would you ever take a selfie like the second picture? No. You might tell a good friend about your horrible night, but you won’t broadcast it to 700 people. Instead, you’ll just post the manta ray picture!
Your 700 Facebook friends are the same. They only post the good stuff.
Yet you follow the fake version of the lives of these 700 people (some you haven’t seen in years). You get frustrated or jealous when you are not on an amazing holiday with amazing friends driving an amazing car with an amazing girlfriend.
These people are as worried, confused or sad as you are. They just don’t show that part of themselves on social media.
Live your life and stop comparing yourself to others. You’re enslaving yourself. You’re making yourself depressed.
“If you bring a slot machine with you [in your pocket] and if you pull that handle all day long, we’re not wired for it. It short circuits the brain and we’re finding that it has actual cognitive consequences, one of them being the sort of pervasive background hum of anxiety.” – Cal Newport
“But Thomas, Facebook is so useful to keep in touch with my friends. I would feel even more lonely and isolated without it!”. False. You will feel amazing. Install the Chrome plugin “News Feed Eradicator“. This way you can still use the Facebook chat function, but you won’t see the “news feed” anymore. I’ve been doing this for the last few months and it’s the single best thing I’ve done for my mental health.
You are in the driver seat. Simple decisions can have long lasting effects. Stop watching the fake version of other people’s lives through a screen. It’s an easy change and it has a very high reward to effort ratio.
Outside circumstances have very little to do with happiness. As Jim Carrey once said:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
There are many people driving around with Ferraris who are depressed. Stop comparing. Stop chasing material wealth. Become happy with who you are. Find inner peace. Live in the moment. Be grateful for the people in your life and the things you have.
There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. The more I think about this seemingly trivial statement, the more profound it becomes.
Alan Watts said it best:
“But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”
Please watch this video of his explanation, it’s the best investment of the following 2 minutes of your life:
A special formula for disappointment
“We know from the research literature that the more you use social media the more likely you are to feel lonely and isolated. We know that the constant exposure to your friends’ carefully curated positive portrayals of their life can leave you feeling inadequate with increased rates of depression. – Cal Newport”
We’re all wildly ambitious. That’s how we were raised. We think we’re special snowflakes. We think we’ll succeed straight out of school. We saw this in our parents’ generation.
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
We expect to be successful, and when we’re not (or not straight away), this gap leaves us frustrated and disappointed.
On top of that, the image of our peers is skewed through the social media lens. They appear to be more successful than they are.
It’s not all bad
“Facebook is to friendship as pornography is to real sexual life.”
If you use it correctly, social media can be a good thing.
A Belgian friend of mine is the perfect example. He’s living the “digital nomad” life. Based in the USA, he travels the world while working on his startup.
You’d think people would get jealous or annoyed by what he posts, but you’d be wrong.
He posts a thought provoking question every day. He talks to people, engages in discussions. He takes initiative, shares ideas and jokes around. Every single one of his posts gets dozens of replies. He is not merely an observer. He does not humblebrag. He does not post selfies for the sake of it.
In other words: he is acting like he would in real life. He is not fake.
Black Mirror has an excellent episode about exactly this phenomenon:
And here’s a relevant scene from Mr Robot:
Choosing a filter
“Anything a six year old with a smartphone can do is not what the market rewards – Cal Newport”
We’ve been led to believe that we are all creators, while in fact most of us are consumers.
When was the last time you saw an insightful post on your news feed? Not just a random link to a news article, I mean a piece of writing or a video created by the person posting it.
Social media platforms focus heavily on influencing user psychology. They make us believe we’re doing amazing things when we get 114 likes. It’s a short circuit through the pain of creation, straight to the reward of recognition.
Editing pictures or choosing a filter are not creative nor original. Hundreds of millions of people use exactly the same filter.
Real creation is hard, it’s suffering.
A Challenge For You
Let’s face it. Our lives are not always legendary. There’s plenty of mundane moments.
Most of the time I’m either:
- eating some pretty average food
- watching some pretty average Netflix series
- typing average words on my average laptop
Most of the time I’m not:
- joking around with Russell Brand on a VIP party
- driving an Aston Martin with a hot chick
- eating world class sushi at Jiro’s
For one day, let’s all stop humblebragging about our achievements and holidays.
Take a picture of what you’re doing today. Chances are, it’s not that impressive.
Eating pot noodles? Taking an amazing shit? Playing videogames? Putting gas in your 20 year old Toyota? Sleeping? Lying in bed watching Rick and Morty? Doing the dishes? Let us know.
Let’s make Instagram boring for a day. Let’s show the rest of the world we’re just humans. It’s not about having the most stuff. It’s not about comparing ourselves to others.
Take a normal, boring picture and put it online. Tag it #normalgram.
Some more food for thought
Let’s check out the ridiculousness of the situation:
An animated version of the Zen Pencils comic about social media:
Cal Newport talks about not participating in social media at all:
“These companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data which can then be packaged up and sold. So to say that you don’t use social media should not be a large social stance, it’s just rejecting one form of entertainment for others.”
“These technologies are a somewhat unsavoury source of entertainment. We now know that many of the major social media companies hire individuals called attention engineers who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling to try to make these products as addictive as possible which maximises the profits.”
“What the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and valuable. The market dismisses activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. Social media use is the epitome of this. It’s something that any 6 year old with a smartphone can do.”
“The desired use case of these tools is that you fragment your attention as much as possible throughout your waking hours. We have a growing amount of research that tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention it can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration. It can permanently reduce your capacity to do exactly the kind of deep effort that we’re finding to be more and more necessary in an increasingly competitive economy.”
“It’s one thing to spend a couple of hours on a slot machine in Las Vegas but if you bring a slot machine with you and if you pull that handle all day long, we’re not wired for it. It short circuits the brain and we’re finding that it has actual cognitive consequences, one of them being the sort of pervasive background hum of anxiety. The canary in the coal mine for this issue is college campuses. If you talk to mental health experts on college campuses, they’ll tell you: along with the rise of ubiquitous smart phone use and social media use of students came an explosion of anxiety related disorders.”
“if you treat your attention with respect, if you don’t fragment it, you allow it to stay whole, when it comes to work you can actually do one thing after another and do it with intensity, and intensity can be traded for time. It’s surprising how much you can get done in an 8 hour day if you give each thing intense concentration.”
Paul Miller talks about his experience of leaving the Internet for a year:
“So when I left the Internet I felt this amazing sense of freedom. I was so happy, I was high on life. Everything smelled better and I had a skip in my step. The sensation I has was kind of like a 15 year old saying you can’t tell me what to do. My life is mine now, I get to make the choices and not you. That incoming email doesn’t get to mess with my plans for today. It was so wonderful.”
“When you have the Internet, the moment you are maybe kind of thinking about getting bored you can grab your phone and you swipe to unlock and now you have an entire world full of information and entertainment right in front of you. […] It’s something creative people have talked about for a long time, this thing called meditation, solitude, a space to think, to be creative. I found it was a time to decide what I actually wanted to do instead of taking the path of least resistance.”
“I also had very different interactions with people. Does Facebook really bring us together with people or are we just hiding behind our computers pretending we have friends? Without the Internet I could be with a person in a much more intense and much more intimate way. I didn’t have the emails distracting me, it allowed me to be much more in the moment. My sister told me I became much more emotionally available.”
“My sister came in, and she wanted to talk about her day and I was listening, kind of, but I was also thinking about what was happening with my inbox and I was kind of starting to open my laptop a little more and kind of nod along to what she was saying and she said “Well, the wall is back up”. She had this deal her whole life where I was plugged in and she wanted to talk and I was never 100% available. I closed the laptop, I didn’t want to be that person anymore.”