Managing happiness on social media

My father went to the revered Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) at Delhi University, in his time. Now at 93, he is an ardent scholar of what is popularly known as the WhatsApp University. Every day, he spends many hours reading a national English daily end to end, but the only part of the newspaper he trusts, is the matrimonial page. So, I asked myself, how is it that even the educated, well aware and mature people like him tend to believe and propagate the unsubstantiated social media forwards from unknown sources compared to the newspaper reports that clearly have the source mentioned.

It is important to clarify here, that I was not thinking of the `fake’ news as it has an extremely low probability of appearing in a national newspaper. I was thinking of the accounts where social media narrative is at a variance from the news.

It seems to me that `forwarding’ has taken the form of addiction for a large part of the population. There is Pavlovian response to the sound of a message arrival tone. The moment there is an alert of a new message, the mind stops doing everything else, the hands pick up the phone and the finger presses the forward button. There is really no conscious thought behind the action. This is almost horrifying, but mercifully there are those who do not do it in this robotic manner. But they do it, nonetheless. In both cases the activity provides an adrenaline rush to the brain. There is a feeling of excitement and joy without any concern about the implications of the act.

Does this sensation seem familiar? It is the same sensation that you get when you are among a group of friends after work, chatting animatedly over a cup of tea, coffee, or any other brew – in a gossip session.

Seemingly, the most popular social media platform fulfils this need for gossip in a virtual manner. We humans love to gossip, whether virtually or otherwise. Viewed from this perspective, one realizes that this platform is nothing but a tool that allows you to gossip at a scale. You can easily define it as a gossip sharing platform instead of an information sharing platform. Mere change of definition presents a completely different perspective. It starts seeming outright foolish that people will use it for sharing verified and validated information. Where is the adrenaline rush in that? Therefore, even the `news’ is shared only as gossip and who cares to validate and verify gossip.

Surely there is a small number of people who also use the platform for non-gossip purposes. They mostly use it to share simple data e.g., office executives these days use a social media group instead of emails to exchange information, but they do not form the core of the users.

Gossip sharing makes, for a highly enjoyable activity. But if you share the gossip with a `wrong’ set of people, the same activity can get you into a conflict. By the way, who are these wrong people? The ones who do not share the same `world view’ as yours. Since their world view is different, your gossip conflicts with that, thereby annoying and frustrating them. Now they try to bring back the balance by bombarding you with their world view which obviously annoys you. As this goes on, the joy driven by the adrenaline rush gets substituted with anger and the interpersonal relationships begin to suffer.

But considering that we humans are the most intelligent species on earth, why cannot we behave more rationally. After all, we value our relationships. Borrowing from an American journalist Walter Lippman, it so happens that all of us carry our own individual picture of `reality’ in our minds. This is akin to reality but not a perfect reflection of it. Also, the actual environment (reality) is so vast, complex and ever changing that it is impossible to be aware of it fully, grasp it and comprehend it entirely. So, we form a simplified version of reality in our minds that we find more manageable. Modifying this mental model requires considerable effort, so when faced with contradictory facts we choose to disregard them. On the other hand, if some information aligns with our pre-existing views, we fondly embrace it. Therefore, even if two people have read the same news in the same newspaper they still might interpret it differently. Therefore, reading the newspaper is also not a solution.

The only solution is to think from the first principle. Boil things down to the most fundamental truth and then reason up from there. This requires considerable mental energy and time. Do you have that energy, time, ability and intent. I think, not.

So, here is my two-point happiness formula for people like you and me:

  1. Treat all posts as gossip unless specified otherwise by the sender.
  2. Join only those social media groups where people share your view of the `reality.

About the Author : Pradeep Saxena is a management graduate from FMS Delhi. He has worked at senior level management positions in Indian and Global corporations. At present he is a practicing Executive and Life Coach.


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