So, here’s a question. What does a happy person look like? Out in the world, how do we pick out the happy ones from the sad ones? Do we look happy to other people?
This morning my partner and I sat in the sun at the
breakfast table after we finished eating. We eat in front of a big window with
a southern exposure. Outside the window is our bird feeder station. I had a mug
of hot tea between my palms. Our big brown tabby, Oz, was stretched out on the
table in the sun within touching distance, should we care to pay homage to his
gleaming coat and superior self. After a luxurious stretch, during which he
lengthened by six inches, his paw was in close proximity to my water. It was a
coincidence, entirely innocent. Ozzy would never dream of knocking over a
drink. He was merely sunbathing.
I was warm and had a stomach full of good food. I felt peaceful and content. Happy. I sat with my eyes closed and my hand on my water glass, soaking up the sun and the silent, relaxed presence of my two companions.
In those moments I was consciously happy. I was not
laughing, talking, taking a selfie, dressed up, made up, or sitting in an
elegant, expensive home. One of the panes of glass in that window is broken
from snow sliding off the roof. The table we eat at used to be a workshop table
and is stained, scarred, and pitted.
One of my best friends, who is also a reader of this blog,
remarked a couple of days ago that happy doesn’t look the same on everyone.
I’ve written about pseudo self before, our propensity to build a careful façade to display to the world. Everything about advertising and many aspects of social media set us up to believe toxic mimics for happiness are the real thing.
Even I, who don’t watch TV and am not on social media, couldn’t have defined happiness before I started reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and writing this series. I knew what happiness was supposed to look like, though. It’s bright and colorful. Attractive, animated, healthy-looking, well-groomed people smile and laugh. Every relationship is obviously loving, tender, exciting. Animals and children are adorable. Food, diamonds, cars, and clothing are gorgeous and enticing.
Except the “happiness” displayed on our screens is like the romance displayed on our screens. It’s not real. It’s a seductive, carefully created fantasy, unattainable and unrealistic. It’s for-profit entertainment and manipulation. It’s a laugh track.
The ingredients of happiness are not on a screen. Or in a mirror. Or in a closet, basement, attic, garage, store, or storage unit.
We experience different intensities of feelings, and we
differ in our ability and willingness to express those feelings. Someone who
feels ecstatic happiness may indeed demonstrate ecstasy, but not necessarily.
Some feel deeply and intensely, but do not communicate their experience to
onlookers. A person who communicates rapture may not be any happier than one
who expresses harmony and relaxation.
On the other hand, and social media teaches us this, some
people work very hard on a happy façade but are in truth deeply unhappy.
My own experience of happiness is frequently subtle. Peace and contentment are dove grey, not neon orange.
Are we losing our ability to see and value the subtleties in life, the understated, the quiet, the neutral colors, the silence and spaces between action, stimulation, events and possessions?
Have we forgotten happiness can be found in a few humble,
unextraordinary, unrecorded minutes in the sun at a scarred table with loved
ones after breakfast?
If we asked the people in our lives about their perception of happiness—their own and ours—what would they say? Is there a gap between our own experience of happiness and the way others perceive us? If so, why? Is the confusion in our expression or their perception? When we long for those we love to be happy, what do we mean?
Happiness is not one size fits all. It doesn’t look the same, sound the same or feel the same for everyone. Before we decide we ourselves or others are unhappy, it’s useful to remember that. Perhaps we’re happier than we realize, even though our lives don’t look like a movie or a popular and carefully created Facebook or Instagram account.
Here in Maine we occasionally have long days of rain mixed with snow, especially this time of year. The sky is dark and sodden, pressing all the light out of the day. It’s foggy, icy, cold and wet. I have a pair of rubber-ducky yellow boots I wear on such days. They’re ridiculously bright and cheerful. I wore them into work recently, and one of my coworkers remarked on them. I told him I love them because they make me smile.
He said they made him smile, too. And he did.
My yellow boots give me happiness, and I even get to share it.
The author proposes restraint as a superpower. Oxford Online Dictionary defines restraint as “unemotional, dispassionate or moderate behavior; self-control.” The ability to manage our own behavior is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.
Understand that this does not mean making ourselves small, or silencing ourselves or others. It’s also important to think of restraint as an internal control. We have no power (usually) to restrain others, but we can develop self-restraint, which may influence others to be more restrained in their behavior.
As I think about restraint, it has two aspects. One is the choices we make as we interact with others. The other is the choices we make about our own attention; for example, we can learn to refrain (or restrain ourselves) from taking everything so seriously. This kind of restraint is invisible to anyone else, but it significantly changes the quality of our experience and life.
I’ve noticed, as I work with this blog, how the vehicle of social media seems to encourage saying more and meaning less. We seem to have a need to share our most mundane activities and decisions as though they’re filled with meaning.
A good example is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) trend, which has long fascinated me. As I navigate through the Internet, reading my news feeds, researching and exploring links that interest me, I often stop reading articles and essays before finishing them. Sometimes that’s because I don’t have the time right then to do it justice. Sometimes I’m finding no value in it.
It never occurs to me to make a comment indicating why I
made the decision to stop reading. If I’m too busy to read a lengthy piece, why
on earth would I pause to say TLDR about it, either aloud or in writing? Why is
that important? Why does anyone care? Is such a comment a passive-aggressive
way to say the writer is too long-winded? Or that the reader has an important
and busy life? Or that literacy is elitist? It seems to me an utterly useless
I also think it’s fun when people write comparatively lengthy comments about why they didn’t read. I have the same set of questions there. It’s impossible to take feedback seriously or have a good discussion with someone who hasn’t read the piece, so why bother saying anything at all? We read what we’re interested in, and we don’t read what we’re not interested in … don’t we?
As we become more embedded in social media and texting technology, we act as though If we have the ability to say something, we must. But does having the means to constantly share our thoughts and choices mean we should? Is it useful? Is it truly connecting? Is it meaningful?
I’m amused and appalled by modern dating. Younger friends and colleagues inform me that the norm now is to exchange frequent texts throughout the day in even a first date relationship. Romantic, meaningful texts like:
“How was your commute?”
(Icy. It’s February in Maine and it snowed yesterday, you jackass!)
(Distracted and interrupted because you keep texting me about nothing, Dude! You’re not a swimmer, you’ve never been here, and you don’t know anything about my job. What can I text you about work? Nobody’s drowned yet today. The pool is cloudy, and we don’t know why. Send chocolate!)
The parenthetic replies are mine. My friend was much kinder and more tolerant! Apparently, however, if texting like this doesn’t happen, one or another of those involved are hurt, or feel rejected or otherwise insecure.
It makes me smile to think of restraint as a superpower, but maybe the writer is on to something. The article did make me think. I’m more comfortable listening than talking, but it’s evident after a few hours at work how lonely so many people are. They talk about their pets, their families, their health concerns, food, their pain, their history, their financial struggles, their work, their gardens, and the ice in their driveways. Sometimes their conversation is long, rambling, and interminable. I’m filled with compassion for them.
Many people of my generation and older are uncomfortable with texting, e-mail and social media. In fact, e-mail is now used much less frequently than messaging or FaceTime. My 30-something kids are scornful of e-mail and those who use it. They much prefer texting, which I do with them for the sake of staying in touch, though it’s deeply unsatisfying for me. I’d rather write long e-mails or talk on the phone (if I must; I hate talking on the phone!).
Nothing replaces actually being with them.
People crave face-to-face conversation and contact (FaceTime doesn’t count), contact that can’t happen in a text with emojis. They’re so hungry that when they get it, they have no restraint at all. Everything comes out. Being “connected” through technology appears to be a toxic mimic for what we really need.
I wonder if part of what drives younger generations to compulsively send words into cyberspace is that same hunger for authentic connection, though unrecognized. In their loneliness and isolation, they send more and more impulsive, unedited, unrestrained words out into the world, longing for meaning, connection, and validation, but having no idea that their extreme oversharing is making them less connected, not more.
Superficiality is not connection. The ability to be in
constant technological contact is not necessarily intimacy, security, love or
meaningful in any way. Restraint seems to be a lost art. We’re better at it
when interacting in real time and place than we are online, where it appears
nothing is too mean or hateful to say, but we all say an awful lot of nothing.
I’m disheartened by how easy we are to manipulate, from click bait to disinformation to trolls. The Internet and tech provide us with endless tasty poisoned bait to nibble on, and we pick it up every time. Stimulate our fear, guilt, outrage, defensiveness or paranoia, and we’re hooked into long, pointless debates and arguments, competitions over who gets to be right, and spending our time engaging with the world in a way that makes us and our relationships neither healthier nor happier, but is probably quite satisfying for all the Cluster B and otherwise destructive, manipulative folks out there with agendas for power and control.
The mice in our house are smarter than that. They’ve figured out how to lick the peanut butter out of the trap without triggering it.
So much for human supremacy!
We all have feelings and impulses, and most of us have said things we regret later. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to be lonely, or to want to be seen or talk things out. I do wonder sometimes if technology is taking us farther and farther from our ability to participate in healthy, authentic relationships, however. Publicly documenting our every move, choice and experience (with pictures!) and participating in the culture’s indiscriminate oversharing makes me wonder where this road will take us. We’re getting very skilled at monologues. Real discussions and conversations in which people both speak and listen? Not so much. We spend more time waiting to speak than listening and attempting to understand.
After reading this article, I’m paying more attention to what I say, and why, and to whom. The point of language (a symbolic system for sharing meaning) is communicating. If we have nothing meaningful to say, why are we speaking (or writing)? (What is meaningful? Who gets to decide? Never mind. That’s for another post!)
Why is just being silent or present as a listener or reader not
enough? Must we find something to say about everything to everyone? Do we cease
to exist if we’re getting no attention or validation or have no comment? Does
everyone need to know about our TLDR choices? Do our private lives need to be
public plays with stage directions?
On the heels of last week’s post about unplugging, I had a conversation with friends about social media and what, exactly, it means to be social. What is a healthy balance of social and solitary? How do we determine if our social lives are appropriate?
Predictably, I want to start this exploration with
definitions, all provided by Oxford Online Dictionary:
Social: Relating to society or its organization; needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.
Society: The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community; the situation of being in the company of other people.
The root of social and society is Latin, and it means
Companionship: A feeling of fellowship or friendship.
The other starting point for me as I consider this issue is what I learned from emotional intelligence coaching. We humans are motivated by three primary needs: Connection, authenticity and contribution.
We are not normally taught to identify our needs, beyond the
obvious survival needs of air, food, water and shelter. Most people believe
what we need is money. If we had enough money, everything would be happy ever
after. We believe that because our capitalist culture depends on our believing
it and continuing to fuel the economy with our spending.
Almost none of our true needs can be bought, however. Here’s a link to the best resource I’ve found online for thinking about needs.
Being social creatures, we also depend on those around us to demonstrate or tell us what we should need, what’s normal to need, or what’s appropriate to need. We’re neurobiologically wired to blend in with the herd, which probably helped us survive another day in the beginning. Individuals who could not or would not adhere to the collective lost the power and protection of the community. That’s why tribal shaming continues to be such a powerful and annihilating weapon.
I observe around me a vast continuum of social abilities and needs. Some people are quite extroverted and social. Others are positively hermits, and most of us fall somewhere in between. We also know that some people have differently wired brains than the majority, and struggle with social cues and skills. Still others of us are more sensitive than the norm (whatever that is) and are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in social situations.
So what does it mean to be appropriately, healthily,
The answer depends on the individual asking the question. The happiest and healthiest balance between connection, authenticity and contribution for each individual is as unique as our fingerprint, and it changes. What we need at 20 may not be what we need at 40, or 60. Life changes, we change, and our needs change.
it’s fascinating to remember that Facebook was created by a brilliant young college man who struggled with social skills; specifically, finding sexual partners. In the beginning, Facebook was, in essence, a prehistoric dating app, and just about as sensitive and romantic! Of course, most college men aren’t looking for sensitivity or romance. They’re looking for sex.
In 15 years (isn’t that amazing?) our social intercourse has
been entirely transformed. Some say our amazing connectivity is an enormous
step forward. Others are beginning to ask important questions about the
effectiveness and/or appropriateness of social media. Is it a useful tool that
we can master and control, or is at weapon that steals our power? Is it a
positive advance that enlightens, informs and connects, demonstrably creating a
happier, healthier, more compassionate society, or is it manipulative, divisive,
addictive, and destructive?
It seems to me social media is exactly like a gun. It’s a neutral entity that can be used for either good or ill, depending on who is wielding it and why.
Social media is huge. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. However, people still form societies or communities around shared values, activities and belief systems in the real world. Social media, however, has changed face-to-face interaction as well; we’ve all observed people inhabiting the same room or even the same couch, each engrossed in the small screen and keypad in their hand or on their lap. Families do it. Married people do it. People do it on dates. Friends do it. Parents do it while ostensibly watching and supporting their children during swim lessons (a particular pet peeve of mine), or other activities. Is social media making these relationships healthier?
One of my problems with social media is the emphasis on external validation. This circles the conversation back around to authenticity and pseudo self. If we rely on external validation to tell us we’re okay (whatever that means to us), we’re not in our power. We’re focused on what others think of us rather than what we think of us. We’re wound up in external expectations of what our needs should be rather than what they actually are and figuring out how to meet them.
I wrote recently about normalizing obesity. Giving our power to social media is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or effective. Popularity does not mean valuable, desirable or useful.
Technology in general and social media in particular are deliberately
designed to be addictive, because our participation fuels marketing and
consumerism via the data we provide with everything we do on social media
platforms and the Internet. As so many people are now realizing, including me,
the constant compulsion to check our social media accounts, dating apps, e-mail
accounts, etc. means we are no longer making conscious choices. We’re driven by
Let’s go back to companionship, defined above as a feeling of fellowship or friendship. Consider Facebook. Remember, the creator of the platform struggled socially. He developed, as part of the platform, the ability to form a group of “friends.”
What did he mean? Was he describing a group of people who
shared and reciprocated feelings of companionship and fellowship? Or was he
describing a group of college men, not necessarily having ever met one another,
joining together to figure out how to get laid more effectively and
Facebook “friends” redefined friendship, and I’m not sure
anyone really noticed or questioned it.
A friend is a person whom one knows. What does it mean to know another person?
When we look someone up on Facebook and scroll through their posts, pictures and conversations, can we conclude that we “know” them? The obvious answer is no, of course not. The beauty of social media of all types is that we get to present to the world the person we wish to be, or at least the person we wish others to believe we are. Our pseudo self, in other words.
Authenticity and intimacy require honesty. Honesty requires risk and trust. Honesty and trust build healthy friendships. Healthy friendships demand we have the ability to befriend ourselves first. Our real selves, not our pseudo selves.
When was the last time you saw a photo of a party on Facebook in which everyone is posed and smiling and it looks like a great time, but the post says the party was a waste of time, somebody got drunk and threw up behind the couch, Bob and Sue had a screaming match, Debbie brought her loathsome homemade snack mix, and the dog peed on someone’s coat? Even the people who were there, know what happened and didn’t enjoy themselves are gratified to see the picture posted so everyone else can see what a great party they went to on Friday night.
After all, if they had spent a quiet evening at home in saggy sweat pants with a glass of wine and a book, everyone would think they were pathetic. Or lonely. Or boring. Or not social enough. What’s the point of a selfie depicting that? And if our activity (or lack thereof) is not worth a selfie, then it must not be worth anything at all, because no one can give us a heart or a thumbs up or a like. No one can see how okay, happy, healthy and popular we are.
If no one can see and validate us, we must not be real. If
we want or need something we can’t post about, take a picture of or share with
the world (something like privacy, for example!), we must be bad and wrong.
Shamefully broken. Facing a lonely, embittered, loveless and friendless future.
I’m not necessarily saying that either pseudo self or social media are inherently bad. I don’t think they are, unless we believe they represent authenticity.
Can we form healthy societies and relationships, including with ourselves, if we are unwilling or unable to be authentic? Can intimacy (I’m not talking about sex. Forget about sex.) exist without honesty?
I can’t see how. If you think the answer is yes, convince me!
Is interacting with others via social media actually social at all, or is it a toxic mimic for friendship and companionship? Again, I think this depends on the user and his or her intentions and needs. I know people who are active, to one degree or another, on social media and also have authentic, satisfying and supportive relationships and connections in the real world. I reiterate that I don’t think social media is some kind of a demon. We don’t have to give it our power. We don’t have to buy the infrastructure that supports it, and we don’t have to use the platforms on which it takes place. We don’t have to allow it to control us.
What we do need to do is to wrest ourselves from the hypnotic, mindless influence and compulsion it holds over us and be present with the way we use it. Are we numbing out, scrolling through Facebook, because we’re bored, hungry, tired, worried, having a pity party, depressed, lonely, or anxious? Are we taking selfies and posting them feverishly in order to hide behind our pseudo self? Are we needing the validation of others, and if so, why?
Here are some good questions we can ask ourselves as we
consider our social/emotional needs:
What energizes me?
What am I grateful for?
What’s not working for me, and why?
If we can’t answer these questions, we’ve lost track of our authentic selves. We can find ourselves again, but we need to be quiet and undistracted in order to do it. Calling ourselves home is not a selfie activity. That’s only the beginning, though. We need to answer these questions honestly, even if we never admit the answers to another living soul. Well, maybe a cat or a dog. Or a goldfish. We need to consent to know our own truth. Then, we have to build strength and trust in ourselves, in our needs and desires, in our scars and mistakes, in our resilience and wisdom. Only then can we dwell in our own power, which allows us the presence to notice when we’re stepping out of it.
This is a good time to review and explore our social needs and lives. Winter is coming. Whose fire do we want to sit around, and who do we want to invite to our hearths? Which of our social interactions leave us renewed, enlarged, comforted, and feeling loved and supported? Which leave us drained, diminished and doubting ourselves? Is our time with social media truly social time, or is it something else in disguise?
You’re the only one who knows the answers to these