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Swipe This! Will I be happier if I quit social media?

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How an endless stream of images made to hold our interest often leads to emptiness.

“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

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Dear Swipe This!

A few months ago, I cut back on my social media use, and now I’m wondering if I should just drop social media altogether.

I used to use social media constantly. I produced two live burlesque shows a month and each had its own email address, Facebook page, and Instagram account. Combined with my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts and my performer Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, I had eight social media accounts. Actually, nine because my cat has an Instagram. I was always online and I was exhausted. So when I stopped producing those shows, I cut my social media in half and it was such a weight off my shoulders.

Fast forward to today. I still use social media a lot. I don’t produce shows anymore, but I use it to connect with other performers and find out about last-minute castings. And to be honest, there are other things I enjoy about it. I am part of a few private Facebook groups that are just for women and trans/non-binary folk and they are really supportive and fun. I like keeping up with what everyone is doing and that I can log on and get support if I need it. But scrolling through my main feeds can be such a downer. Sometimes it makes me feel inadequate and insecure, almost shameful, about nearly every aspect of my life. I find it impossible to scroll without comparing myself to others and I hate wasting time on something that makes me feel so bad.

I also feel like social media cheapens the quality of my real-life friendships. I feel like I’m so connected to people online that it’s almost taking the place of actually spending time with them. I already know what’s up with my friends, so no need to hang out with them and catch up over wine. It’s as if my actual friendships are feeling more virtual and I don’t want that!

I would really like to take some social media breaks—a day here or there—and just live my own life, be more present in it. But every day, I get up and I reflexively log on. And that makes me feel like the only way to cut back is to cut it out completely. I’ve even thought about deleting my cat’s Instagram but then I’m like, “There are cute animals on there!” So maybe not?

What should I do? Take breaks? Will going cold turkey work? Is it worth it? If I finally bite the bullet and delete my accounts, will I be happier?

Sincerely,

Sick of Scrolling

. . .

Dear Sick of Scrolling,

I’ve got to be honest with you. Awareness sucks. I could tell you how great it is that you’re considering making healthy changes. I could congratulate you for having the insight and clarity of mind to see this problem clearly. But the fact is seeing everything that’s wrong with how we’ve been living doesn’t feel good. In many ways, it can be more pleasant to be a zombie, lurching along, looking for your next grotesque snack to munch on. So I understand why you’re feeling uncertain, or even paralyzed, when it comes to what to do next.

Your letter asks some big questions: If you actually dare to do a big, difficult thing, what are the guarantees? Will this be worth it? And will you be happier? The answers will vary depending on how you define “worth” and “happiness.” In order to find your answers, I think you’ll need to ask yourself what you value.

When I think about things that are challenging but worthwhile to me, I think about things that bring a sense of satisfaction. I feel proud of myself for muscling through. And perhaps, more importantly, I feel a deeper calm that comes from knowing I can trust myself. When I do a difficult act of self-care like making it to a 7am yoga class (and yes I realize this is becoming a humble brag about how I—on a few, very rare occasions—have made it to an early yoga class), the real reward isn’t necessarily the endorphins or even the bragging rights. The real reward comes from knowing that if I want to do something, even a challenging thing, I can trust myself to show up for it. In this respect, I think going on a brief social media fast could be a wonderful way to show yourself you care about this desire to make a change.

When I’ve gone on my own social media fasts, the reward wasn’t instant happiness, but more of an unburdening like you describe in your experience of deleting the accounts you no longer needed. It was a relief to discover I could wake up and do things differently. It was freeing to realize I had other choices than tethering my eyes to a screen. But for me, these changes were only accessible at first by setting strict parameters. And they weren’t easy to hold. Sometimes I missed my mindless scrolling, and my brain definitely missed the little high I got from getting a steady influx of likes on a post, or little notifications lighting up my screen to let me know that my virtual friends were thinking of me. If you asked me if I was happier in those moments, the answer would be no. In fact, I was briefly, a bit sadder. Without the “high” of social media, my brain felt deflated, a little depressed, even. But I stuck it out because I knew I valued not being beholden to some external source for my happiness more than I did those momentary highs that I was missing out on.

Consider that there are things you can feel that are greater than happiness. Happiness is largely something we experience due to external factors. That’s why people are always chasing it. You feel happy when you land the promotion, or the date goes well, or someone says something lovely about your hair. It’s OK to enjoy these things, and I would argue that happiness is a wonderful piece of being alive. But when we hinge our daily well-being to an emotion that relies so heavily on things happening to us, I think we risk growing depressed. Social media is in a way the perfect virtual diagram of this experience. It promises us an endless stream of images and tidbits that should hold our interest and make us “happy” and yet, as you’ve discovered, so often it leads to feelings of emptiness and exhaustion. Instead of actually feeling the contentment we are reaching for, we end up forever scrolling, always chasing the happiness we were promised.

So I would suggest, instead, that you give up the idea that eliminating social media might make you happy. I would say the things you are guaranteed to gain by reducing your social media intake are more space and more quiet—which happens to be the ideal canvas for cultivating joy.

Joy and happiness are often thought of as synonymous, but I think of them as quite different. According to JD Salinger, “The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” I love this because it evokes the fluid feeling that joy inspires in me. But for more practical purposes, I think of happiness as an emotion based on external factors, and joy is an internal sensation that flows outward. Because joy is internal, I can access it daily. But this doesn’t happen without effort. It takes reminders. It takes calling myself back to the present moment over and over again. It requires more than awareness. Joy requires mindfulness. But when I focus my energy on mindfulness, when I commit myself to accessing joy, it is wonderful and I am overcome with gratitude that I get to be here, present in this body. And that is a sensation I have never felt while scrolling through social media.

Unfortunately, being in this human body means experiencing a whole range of other emotions. Many of them unpleasant. And I have often found myself wondering, like you, if I will ever get the formula right for being happy. When these thoughts and worries are at their worst, sometimes I cannot quiet my mind. Sometimes mindfulness feels out of reach. Sometimes I waste an hour or more scrolling. I numb out to Netflix. Or I treat myself to a greasy meal. But those never quite lead me back to joy.

As you navigate this tricky territory of how to set new boundaries with social media, I think it is OK to stumble. It’s OK to worry, or to backslide, or even to be unsure. But I hope as you decide what feels right for you, you’ll make a little time to quiet your mind and tune in to the part of you that’s yearning to feel joy.

One of my favorite ways to reconnect with joy is by turning to my big book external reminders on how to live joyfully: Devotions, an anthology of poetry by Mary Oliver, a beloved poet who passed away this week. This poem came to mind as I thought about your worries. And so I’ll leave you with it. I hope it leads you a few steps closer to joy.

I Worried

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn

as it was taught, and if not how shall

I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am, well,

hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up.  And took my old body

and went out into the morning

and sang.

—Mary Oliver

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay is a frequent contributor to the Daily Dot, covering body positivity, feminism, sex, relationships, and gender. She is also the author of the advice column “Swipe This!” A former New York Teaching Fellow, her writing has been featured in Reductress, Rolling Stone, Mic, Someecards, and more.