A Personal Guide to Digital Happiness

Relinquishing privacy is at the core of social media's recipe for success. Please Rob Me, whose tagline is "Raising awareness about over-sharing," highlights the danger of checking in to places, and thereby publicly broadcasting that you're not home. The assumption is the more information you give up, the more you'll "get" in terms of information, entertainment, and points of connection. But what do we risk in this exchange? And does that "get" produce more happiness than what we're at risk of losing?

3. Shallow vs. Deep: In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam famously argued that there has been a decline in social capital in the U.S., which he attributed to fewer in-person interactions and more "individualizing" of our time, as a result of our engagement with technology.

But is this decentralization of contacts and interaction a bad thing? Does having a larger pool of weaker ties really erode social capital? Our larger, weaker ties are equally important, as they connect us to people we don't know and offer a larger pool to pull from via the "Three Degrees of Influence Rule" -- in other words, our friends' friends' friends directly affect us, and vice versa. This includes the spread of emotions, which have been shown to have a contagious quality. Studies show that having happier friends and relatives is a greater predictor of happiness than having more money. Interaction -- be it in-person or technologically mediated -- is central to creating contagious happiness in both strong and weak ties.

We are now able to stay knowledgeable and feel connected to an event, without ever getting our hands dirty.

4. Active vs. Passive: Marshall McLuhan argued that the printed word offered man the "gifts" of detachment and noninvolvement, or "the power to act without reacting." We are now able to stay knowledgeable and feel connected to an event, without ever getting our hands dirty. We are part of the movement! -- without actually moving. Recent "Twitter revolutions" have brought new meaning to McLuhan's words. These social media users are technically "in action." Is this the new face of "activism"? Malcolm Gladwell states that "where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools."

"Liking" a charity on Facebook seems to exemplify this statement. We have all become "participants" in social action via social media -- but that participation requires very little motivation, risk, or personal investment. What is lost via this type of "activism"? What is "active social media"? I suggest we rethink not only the relationships mediated by technology, but also our relationship with social media and its vast potential for large-scale movement and change. A new study suggests a link between political activism and well-being -- that is to say that activism can breed happiness. But can we be passive activists who prefer the comfortable complacency of a charity-related retweet to attending a local charity Meetup or protest and still reap the happiness rewards?

* * *

So where does this leave us? How will life and culture change as a result of the new ways we have of relating to one another?

1. We must rewrite the rules of etiquette: Emily Post couldn't have anticipated the extent to which electronic media would challenge the rules of engagement. My mother -- the poster-woman for propriety -- bought me a copy of the 1997 edition one Christmas. And only a decade later, it's comical to flip through and see how much has changed. The Emily Post Institute website no longer exclusively offers antiquated 20th-century advice, but rather has an extensive section on technology-related manners. Here's what they have to say about "De-Friending":

You may find a time when it is necessary to de-friend - your list is too big, you've had a falling-out/break-up, or someone has been harassing or bothering you. Similarly to denying a friend, it is up to you whether to send a message or not. If you choose to send a message, there's no reason to be nasty, or to get too detailed, just simply state your reasoning, and that you hope the other party can understand.

Jimmy Kimmel has created a day for just this: National Unfriend Day.

The netiquette rulebook is still being written, and our embodied interactions are equally in flux. Young people are increasingly reticent when it comes to face-to-face interactions. What does it mean to be present? Phones are placed on the table or bar, a third party, ready to disrupt the scene at any moment.

Technology changes our social expectations, as well as our more intimate ones. Where do virtual relationships, flirtations, verbal exchanges, and cybersex fall on the cheating continuum? Ask your significant other that question; it tends to bring up a rather interesting (and passionate) debate.

2. We are rethinking how we mobilize and incentive people: Different types of activities can facilitate or inhibit a "flow" state. Browsing Facebook is a type of passive leisure that is satisfying for only about 30 minutes, after which it creates "psychic entropy" -- apathy, listlessness. Active leisure, on the other hand, like games and sports, takes more effort, but is more satisfying. Jane McGonigal argues that we create our own happiness by focusing on intrinsic rewards that result from self-motivated, self-rewarding activities, like alternate reality games. One such game, Chore Wars, is a digital platform used to motivate members of your household or office to complete real world tasks and chores. Each completed chore earns experience points or virtual loot, all of which can be traded in for real-world rewards, such as rounds of drinks or coffee runs.

3. We are redefining our limits and boundaries: Where do we end and technology begins and vice versa? University of New Hampshire communications professor Joshua Meyrowitz claims that our sense of place is disrupted and reorganized by electronic media, as it transports us and creates boundary-less intimacy. I am simultaneously here and there. I am me, but I have a sense of connection with people and places beyond my immediate context. We are on a connection journey that happens through the symbiotic relationship of in-person encounters and electronically mediated interactions.

4. We are transforming our sense of self: We leave a permanent, virtual legacy, which increases our visibility. Michel Foucault, ever interested in surveillance and the relationship between power and knowledge, argues that visibility is a trap, and that the more visible we become, the more we open ourselves to external surveillance and thereby relinquish power. I think it's safe to say he would have hated Facebook.

* * *

We now experience a new multiplicity of self. We are at once an embodied, singular presence, and yet our image is replicated and working for (or against) us across the web. We need tools and methods for thinking about this new reality, and for making it work for us. And so, I invite you to use the categories I have outlined here, and go forth and construct a consciously mediated life that optimizes your sense of well-being, complete with ups and downs, and periods of hyperconnectivity and unplugging alike. In the words of Bob Ross, "We don't have mistakes here, we just have happy accidents." So don't worry, be #happy.

Image: Leo Blanchette/Shutterstock.

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Anna Akbari teaches in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, and is the founder of Splice, Bricoler, and Closet Catharsis.

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