Our happiness series will cover a fair amount in our deliberate attempt to get better at feeling better. There'll be a mix of reviews of books, ideas we have, and experiments we try out that might work for you, too. At the time of writing, this is probably the most applicable to most people - and that is: detox your social media. We'll get on to how later, but I'd be surprised if we needed to do that much explaining of the why - how social media can be exacerbating your stress and in small, subtle ways, making every day life that little bit harder.
Why the detox? The problems with social media
The scandals about data breaches, scams, political manipulation, political bias, echo-chambers, censorship, hacking, the commercialisation of personal data: all these are well known problems with the big companies, particularly Facebook. Something initially meant to connect you to your friends, the wider community and those who share your interests, is increasingly filled with advertising, spam, and probably people you're not all that close to, but feel like you have to be connected to in some way. Neither of you are probably all that hot on each other, but if either of you chooses to decisively 'un-friend' that could make things so awkward. And so you have to do the charade of subtly subdividing your friends list, monitoring who can see your posts, making sure you don't share last night's pictures to your boss and your Mum... Everyone is curating their own lives, making sure the wrong content doesn't go to the wrong audience, whether that's family, colleagues or others. An audience is a key concept here - if you have an audience, aren't you kind of performing? And 'performing' doesn't exactly make me imagine a stress free environment.
We found Facebook was showing us largely irrelevant stuff, awkwardly over-personal drama from people we barely knew, and inviting unexpected and impassioned arguments on what we had thought were harmless posts. Sure, you can have a decent conversation with a friend you know, but with all their friends too? Maybe not so level-headed. And so, an argument on a platform that keeps notifying you every time a near-total stranger has chimed in to call you an idiot, can lead to a regular injection of stress in small punctures throughout the day.
And for all it's meant to bring us together, we found the end effect is that people are driven further apart. Maybe it's just our generation, but people are now incredibly flaky. You just don't know who will turn up to anything you organise. The truism that 'a Facebook "yes!" is a real life "maybe..."' stands for that reason.
Ultimately, we found our news feeds were filled with people that, to be honest, we didn't really like - and they probably didn't like us either, if we even knew each other in the first place. Seeing posts from these people brought with them a little sprinkle of '... oh' whenever we came across them. And no doubt, we were that '...oh' to someone else we happened to share a social circle with, who'd added us to be polite and now felt trapped by the awkwardness of it all. Somewhere in all of that were posts and comments from people we really cared about, and who cared about us. But it was like we'd opened up our living room to the world, and were trying to find our real friends in the throng. We got to thinking, why do we keep letting these people into our virtual house if they cause us that much stress?
Attempt one: moderation, moderation, moderation
So we moderated. Hid posts, selected our audience carefully, unfollowed and generally did what we could to block out the negativity as much as possible. Let's make an analogy: if there were a bar in your neighbourhood where I'd go, and I wouldn't have to speak to people I don't like, but they'd always be around, butting into friends' conversations, still starting arguments, and where I had to moderate whatever I said in case someone was eavesdropping and wanted to argue with me... I would not go to that bar. We weren't even particularly controversial people, but our main social circles online were made up of people who held very passionate beliefs. And if someone holds that tightly to a view point, believe me, you'll hear about it on Facebook.
Moderating? Not all that helpful.
attempt two: detox the friend list
It's pretty telling that people will announce a 'friend cull' over social media. Not just the word 'cull' has particularly chilling overtones (particularly for vegans), but that it will be announced. Is this a cue to a bizarre test of friendship-proving? A contest of worth? The whole concept proves how much people are forming a lot of connections that they just don't value. You can unfollow, sure, but why even be bound to the pretence of friendship by keeping them on that list. Being someone's friend is a treat, not something anyone's entitled to, just because you once went to a badminton club together. It shouldn't be awkward to step away from a connection that was always a bit meaningless.
Social media has given us a distorted idea of what a healthy friendship group looks like - my sister got off Facebook years before me and pointed out recently that she only really has close friendships with four or five people besides her husband. There are acquaintances and fun people to hang out with, but friends is something a bit more rare. But my view of friendship, thanks to Facebook, had become something I measured in quantity, not quality. And then we both also had experiences when we saw photos and videos from nights out, or afternoon hang outs between groups of people we'd counted as among our good friends. Realising that you thought you were close to someone, only to find out that they don't think the same back, presented to you through a screen that highlights what you're missing out on? It's rough. It's even got it's own title, now, 'Fear of Missing Out', and secondary school PSHE has modules to cover how to manage that...
It should have been the most obvious answer, but sometimes it's so obvious we don't see it. Unfriend people who aren't your friends.
This made an immediate improvement to our experience on social media - between us we dropped down to fewer than 100 'friends' on our lists. I felt weird guilt over dropping people that I had no ill will towards, but I just didn't know, didn't want to know, and knew they didn't want to know me either. Honestly no-one here had any interest in each other - we were all fine people, just not friends.
However, shrinking the list that much had a really interesting effect on how Facebook itself began to interact with us. For a start, we saw how little people were actually posting. The news feed was very dead, devoid of anything particularly personal or interesting. But Facebook keeps sending you notifications to keep you coming back. So I'd get notifications for increasingly trivial things: comments from friends-of-friends on a friend's post that I hadn't read; someone going to an event near me; anniversaries of minor things, like status updates or photo uploads; events that were simply occurring near me, and of course more ads. Nothing stops the ads.
That helped us both take the final leap.
Attempt three: back to the future
I'd seen a great post from someone with similar insights and experiences, who had reverted to using Facebook like it was 2007 - golden age, pure vintage Facebook (minus 'Vampires versus Werewolves' and other annoying games). That is, you delete all the apps off your mobile devices, so Facebook can't notify you during the day. Then it becomes a site you have to consciously decide to log in to. You have control over it again. And that might be plenty for most people - checking in on your notifications once a week or less, keeping up with a few important people, but otherwise - it's just a website. Your time is yours again. And more importantly, your headspace is yours again. Facebook can't fire you for not logging in, and you'd be amazed what you get back in terms of focus and attention.
However... this was the death knell for me. I deleted the apps from my mobile device and went on a one-week holiday with enforced limited internet due to our middle-of-nowhere location. I haven't logged back on once. I do not miss it. In fact, I struggle to remember what originally attracted me to it. Sure, I could easily kill fifteen minutes (or frequently more) on some sweet, sweet memes - but Facebook had just become a habit, something I did mindlessly, without noticing the price I was paying.
If you step back, and take a look at your relationship with social media, you might find the same. You're not getting out of it what you used to get out of it.
More people are dropping off social media, moving onto more specialist sites or close-network communication like What'sApp and Snapchat. Generally, Facebook and other big networks don't hold us hostage in the way they used to. Since we both started using it less (or not at all) we've found so many positive changes - we connect more with friends in person because we feel like we actually have something to catch up on. If I haven't seen every minute detail of someone's work week when we meet for coffee, then the stories are still fresh, and the emotional connection in sharing and describing those experiences is deeper. I'm more focused because I'm not slightly alert to my phone buzzing, wondering 'what's happening on FB, have I got notifications? What's being said or liked or done?'
I guess I now get the hipster kudos of being able to say 'oh, I don't have Facebook - you can reach me by telegram' (or whatever people used to do to connect). This will probably be a running theme here - going back to an older, often more satisfying way of doing things. We aren't luddites - but we also don't want to use technology just because it's there. We want our lives and tools to work for us, not the other way around.
Have you tried a social media detox? How did it go for you?