ON THE ONE HAND
There’s so much that’s good about social media: It updates us on the lives of people that we care about but might otherwise not keep in close touch with, creates community and provides an easy forum for self-expression. In the aftermath of hurricanes and other disasters, it’s heartening to see the important role that social media plays in connecting people in need with those who can and want to help.
At the same time, this endless stream of communication brings constant reminders of what other people are doing which, in turn, highlights all the things that we aren’t doing. Which, as psychology professor and author of Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely points out, is making us increasingly afraid that we’ve made the wrong decision about how to spend our time.
THE GRASS IS GREENER
Thinking that everyone else’s lives are better and more interesting – the “grass is greener” syndrome — is nothing new, of course. But it’s become even easier to see what everyone else is doing (or at least says they are) and it’s exacerbating our fear of missing out (FOMO).
“Platforms for social comparisons, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter,” says psychologist Dr Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus, “make it more apparent to people what they aren’t achieving, doing or having. An awareness of these alternatives causes inherent dissatisfaction because you could have equally attractive paths, and when you select one you could feel regret over the one you didn’t choose. It results in dissatisfaction, indecisiveness and, ultimately, debilitation.”
Here’s what’s happening: Everytime we experience FOMO, or envy, for that matter, the primitive (and not terribly rational) part of our brain interprets that as a threat to our survival. That sets off the fight-or-flight response, triggering the release of stress hormones. Basically, your body reacts to a friend’s status update about how awesome the party was as if it were the proverbial saber-toothed tiger. When it’s happening hundreds of times a day, that’s a problem.
TAKE YOUR POWER BACK
There’s no getting around it: we need to take a more conscious approach to managing our relationship with others on social media, as well as our perceptions. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:
1. Control your access to social media. Easier said than done, I know. But being alerted to updates as they happen will keep you in reactive mode, distracted and off balance. Realize that the feeling of missing out only happens when you actually find out about what you “missed.” Whether it’s turning off notifications or limiting the number of times you check Facebook (I deliberately decided not to put the FB app on my phone), establish your own personal rules and boundaries — they won’t happen otherwise.
2. Curate your feed. For better or worse, information is brain food. You wouldn’t let just anyone stick food in your mouth, would you? Then don’t allow the mental equivalent. Most social media platforms allow you to create lists or filter the information you see. Start to notice whose posts consistently set off your fight-or-flight response (check your body for reactions like tense shoulders, shallow breathing, excessive eye-rolling) and screen accordingly.
3. Manage your perspective. Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher, explains how we’re affected by something called impact bias – that we tend to overestimate how much we will benefit emotionally from a particular event. Our imagination is not an accurate predictor of what actually makes us happy. What’s more, if we opt for a peaceful night at home with a juicy novel and then later see a friend’s status update about how fun the party was (the one we opted to skip), we hone right in on the feeling of missing out – conveniently glossing over how miserable we actually would have been, surrounded by deafening music and crowds of people…all checking their phones to see what everyone else is doing.
4. Resist comparing your insides with other’s outsides. This is critical to maintaining your equilibrium in the world of social media. Scrolling through your feed, it’s easy to get the sinking feeling that everyone else (and their cat) is living more exciting lives than you are. Remind yourself that you don’t have the whole story (there are no truth-in-advertising laws in effect on social media). Resist the urge to let your insecurities embellish and exaggerate, and stick to the facts – i.e. “Jane got engaged” not “Why is everyone getting engaged except me?”
Social media is a double-edged sword. With a little forethought and self-awareness, however, you can stay on its good side.
What’s working for you?