Hearts for happiness

In a nation of narcissists and voyeurs, happiness is linked to validation from others

The Spectrum

Money can assuage the material problems we encounter in day-to-day life, like paying rent, filling our car up with gas or buying groceries for the week, but it most certainly cannot help with our relationships or become something meaningful we devote our lives to.

But I don't think I'm telling you anything you didn't already know.

I've had a hunch that America at large no longer sees wealth as integral to happiness for a while now.

Rather, I think our perceived sense of happiness is becoming increasingly determined by our lives constructed on social media sites.

Generations just after World War II experienced the beginning of mass consumerism as the economy expanded and technology progressed. After the major economic tragedy that was the Great Depression, wealth became increasingly important to Americans.

Since then, we've come a long way in the globalization of the economy and technological progression - and we've realized that goods are no longer status symbols. A significant portion of Americans have smart phones; clothing brands like Forever 21 and H&M make high-fashion trends available on most budgets; and thrift shops have become hip places.

Just one in four Americans still believes that wealth determines success, according to the recent LifeTwist study.

The study, commissioned by American Express, surveyed more than 2,000 Americans. 85 percent said good health is essential to happiness; 83 percent said happiness can be finding time for the "important things in life;" 81 percent think it's having good intimate relationships; 79 percent attributed happiness to a good balance between life and work; and 75 percent cited having a career you love. An overwhelming 94 percent surveyed said that the key to a successful and happy life is being open to change.

In the study, Americans ranked 'having a lot of money' as 20th on a list of 22 possible factors in having a happy life.

According to The Guardian, a study done by the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom surveyed more than 150,000 British citizens regarding personal wellbeing. The data showed that 30 of the 34 boroughs in London, the wealthiest area of the UK, were "below the UK average for wellbeing."

With these statistics in mind, it is pretty clear what many Americans and Brits consider as components of a happy life. But there is something to be said for the prevalence of social media in society.

As of 7:35 p.m. on May 5, there were 159,091,789 posts on Instagram under the hashtag 'happy' and another 15,353,170 under 'happiness.' In accordance with the findings of the LifeTwist study, many of the pictures posted are not of material goods or stacks of money -they're selfies, pictures of newborns, couples kissing, cats, fireworks, groups of friends smiling, wedding photos, quotes and food.

One could argue that posting pictures of what makes us happy is a way to share our happiness with others, but that simply doesn't seem to be the case. Just as me taking a picture of my dinner doesn't mean you're going to taste it, my sharing of a picture of what makes me happy won't make you happy.

Instead, more and more people - mainly from the X Generation and younger - associate happiness, on some level, with our personas on social media. We post pictures of what makes us happy in order to earn validation from others. Basically, if you 'heart' or 'like' my picture on Instagram or Facebook, I know that you understand what makes me happy. You validate my happiness.

We share our lives through pictures and posts with others solely because we want others to know about ourselves. We want people to know what interesting things we get up to. I'm writing this column because I want you to read it and either agree or disagree with me - the same way I post pictures on Instagram because I want you to like them.

It is understood by mass society that interacting through social media rather than through face-to-face conversations is detrimental to happiness and human society. And yet, mainstream media and culture have adopted this technological phenomenon. We all hate seeing groups of friends, sitting at a restaurant, each person absorbed in his or her phone - so why can't we put down our own?

According to a study by PBS, "Belonging to a group or community gives us a sense of identity. It helps us understand who we are and feel part of something larger than ourselves." This has long driven the motivation for joining religions or clubs at school. Furthermore, "Researchers have found that people are happier when they are with other people than when they are alone." Being absorbed in our phones removes us from the group we are most immediately connected to - the people surrounding us at a table, on a bus or in a classroom.

Communicating with others through social media is definitely a form of connecting with others, but because we're mediating and constructing our persona through a phone or a computer, we can never be our genuine selves. In conversation, we can often slip up and let our true selves out, be it through a silly laugh we hate, a gesture we always make or the way our face scrunches up when we don't like something.

Online, however, I pick and choose exactly what I want to say, which pictures I want to show, who I respond to or who I ignore - quite literally, I am constructing my own particular version of 'Emma Janicki.'

But we are not just a society of narcissists, picking and choosing what to show. We are a society of narcissists and voyeurs. In an attempt to rekindle the potentially lost art of face-to-face human interaction, we seek out a group to interact with through social media. We post pictures in the hopes people will like them and we like other people's pictures - this gives us a sense of community.

Right now, the community of 'happy' people on Instagram has grown to 159,121,808. Most of them will never see each other in real life, but they are part of a community.

As the definition of community changes and the ways we communicate with others becomes more and more mediated by social media, maybe happiness will become increasingly genuinely linked to our lives online.

But for now, I see social media as artificial communities and artificial representations of ourselves. For many young people, happiness is associated with likes and the number of followers we have. Young people have begun attaching more importance to the value of their handle than on real friendships. By seeking artificial and constructed forms of validation through social media, we are undermining the importance of direct, more traditional forms of contact with other humans.

email: emma.janicki@ubspectrum.com