Am I Feeling Happy? Just Check My News Feed

To be honest, it was quite a struggle to settle on a topic for this next post for Plugged In & Tuned Out. For me, a good blog post is one that is written by an individual who can relate to the theme at hand on a personal level. Unfortunately, I was feeling quite uninspired by the time the next blog deadline had emerged for CIS*2050 (July 24, 2013). I was ultimately convinced that I needed to deviate away from the general theme of my previous two posts on this blog. I had gotten essentially all I could out of the subject of my relationship in my first and second entries.

I initially tried to find a lead in the futuristic topic of brain simulation/emulation and strong vs. weak Artificial Intelligence, but feared my own unfamiliarity with the field of neuroscience and computer programming would undermine the credibility of the subjective contents of my post, which would likely end up taking a philosophical twist. While one might read that sentence and think, “gee, wouldn’t that have been interesting!”, what this post wouldn’t have revealed was the mental stress I would have subject myself to in order to formulate an opinion on such a ‘heavy’ topic as the ethics behind immortality and computing. Imagine discussing over dinner whether or not you would—albeit; this is a very basic statement—like to live forever through a computer program of your brain. This question—the how, the why, the when—brings several other fundamental questions into the mix. As an academic who believes in doing thorough research before stating an opinion, this blog post would have required  intensive and very mentally exhausting research on my part in the fields of philosophy, ethics, neuroscience, and computer programming. And even then, much of the post would have ended speculatively. And above all, I am certain I would have finished the post as unsatisfied with the result as I was when first I considered the issue at surface value. If you haven’t already noticed, reader, I take writing assignments quite seriously.

So when it came to the point where I finally decided that the topic was best set aside for good, I was in low spirits. Putting the fundamental questions aside seemed lazy and irresponsible. But then again, those answers (if any) weren’t due the upcoming Wednesday.

I decided to take a small break from the hours of reading difficult articles about BigBrain, Blue Brain and the Chinese Room to check my Facebook News Feed. A dip back into mainstream society would bring me to my senses, surely! Or at least inspire my next post. Once logged in, I scrolled through the unlimited stream of photos, videos, and direct links to whatever else people were offering up that day for their status. Despite the unfaltering unoriginality of News Feed contents, what struck me this particular time is that everyone always seems to be doing somethinghanging with friends, sharing successes and milestones, trying out their new camera or drawing software, right down to simply sharing captioned pictures that are apparently ‘lol-worthy’ on one level or another. I signed out feeling no better than before, perhaps worse, and certainly no closer to completing my blog. Sound familiar?

A CHANGE OF HEART

My thoughts then wandered to my current mood. Was I… depressed? Perhaps not, but I was feeling down and lazy at best. I wasn’t procrastinating though; perhaps trying too hard was a better explanation. Although I was certain of another thing: sitting in front of the computer and abusing Google Search wasn’t going to help me.

…Or was it?

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Sometimes you just allow yourself to search exactly what’s on your mind. Call it desperation, but look where it got me:

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The link leads to a webpage that features select excerpts from Bruce E. Levine’s book, Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy. Intrigued, I read the webpage. And sure enough, it was through reading the words of Ph.D clinical psychologist Levine that—eureka!—a possible reason for my current mood emerged: maybe I didn’t know how to handle being unhappy.

HAPPINESS: IN ITSELF OR THE PURSUIT OF?

Levine claims that Western culture is one that “demands happiness” out of society. The pressure to be in a good mood creates a “pain over pain” phenomenon. ‘The American Dream’, i.e. the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has evolved to mean (in Levine’s opinion) “being happy all the time”. With this interpretation in mind, the opinion of Psychologist/Journalist Lesley Hazelton then seems quite logical. She explains that depression went from being classified as a weakness to an illness:

“If we were allowed to be depressed—if we could allow ourselves to be so—we might find it much easier to tolerate.”

If we cannot accept depression as a normal human response, then are choosing to ignore a part of what makes us human and subjecting ourselves to more pain then potentially necessary.

After digesting the conclusions of qualified experts, I felt a little better about my own mood. I began to realize that I may very well be subject to the very societal conditioning Hazelton and Levine spoke of. Maybe I did spend excess energy on avoiding being bored or unhappy—even for the duration of just one assignment. And upon further reflection, I realized that the expectation for my mood to stay positive throughout my work periods was unrealistic. It is realistic to be bored and puzzled during work. And although the research and write-up processes themselves are less-than-fun, the grunt work involved in assignments gives us the opportunity to learn from the wisdom of others and produce a product that eventually will fulfill needs of self-accomplishment. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Happiness is not a goal, but a by-product.”

These are wise words from someone who likely embraced all aspects of human psychological responses, even the more negative ones like anxiety and depression.

Hopefully, reader, you are feeling somewhat more enlightened about your own grasp of your feelings. But who’s to claim that the rest of modern society also recognises the chance for error in their culture’s proposed belief on happiness? Think about your own social media experiences. Who have you witnessed expressing their proposed condition of “eternal happiness” through an endless stream of status updates boasting some new purchase, or yet another photograph capturing yet another positive experience in their lives? Our self-confidence levels get a boost from the self-recognition we receive from social media attention.

Unfortunately, this ‘boost’ in happiness doesn’t appear to justify the means.

TIME REVEALS ALL

In a June 20th, 2013 telephone poll conducted by TIME magazine, 801 Americans aged 18 and older were asked what makes them happy. One of the questions (and its consensus) is summarized below in a scan from the July 8/ July 15 2013 issue of TIME magazine:

better

It appears that (ignoring the 2% of people who refused to answer) the majority of American citizens who spend a portion of their time on social media don’t feel any better for it. Curiously, this neutral 60% would include both people who view the content of others, and people who submit content for others to view. We could tentatively conclude that making ourselves looks better online generally won’t make us or anyone else feel any more self-worthy. How counter-productive, considering the current societal trend to be happy or continually seek out the state of being happy!

Another question asked the exact opposite:

worse

Aside from feeling neutral more than anything on social networks, another interesting trend emerges from this statistic when compared to the previous: more often we feel better about spending time on social media than feeling worse (38% feeling better vs. 28% feeling worse). Again, this could be from posting or viewing with self-recognition and/or self-worth seeking motives. We want to feel better about ourselves, and it shows on our profiles:

Profiles

Interestingly, the majority of Americans perceive that others modify their online appearances to make themselves look better, yet as the viewers of this so-called trickery are predominantly humble and honest netizens themselves!

…MAYBE BOTH

Are there any winners in the battle for self-sought happiness via social media? Not many, it seems. Yet we continue to sign on in the hopes of finding inspiration and self-gratification. Jeffery Kluger, author of TIME article The Happiness of Pursuit comes to a similar conclusion to Levine concerning our modern understanding of the state of happiness:

“Part of the solution…may lie not in a product or a program but simply in a better understanding of the particular way Americans define happiness in the first place.”

SHORT & SWEET

Happiness is not something to continually strive for; it is an externality of our daily activities, something to expect from unexpected sources. The odds in finding genuine, lasting happiness may be stacked against us, given our consumerist tendencies and ready access to social media and other technologies that allow us to further propagate our ‘happy’ fantasies unto others. But if we can learn to accept that our low points are an acceptable and healthy part of being expressive human beings, maybe we’d all be a little more upbeat for it, and for longer periods of time. I’m smiling now in fact, and it has little to do with meeting my deadline.

EXTERNAL REFERENCES

TIME Poll Images (scans):

Kluger, Jeffery. “The Happiness of Pursuit.” TIME. 8 June 2013: 34. Print.

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