We have all heard the rhetorical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
However, we should adapt this for our new world: “If a tree falls in the forest, post pictures, or else it didn’t happen.”
It’s hard to imagine that, barely 20 years ago, we could get a deep sense of personal enjoyment from a beautiful walk on a beach, or a moment of quiet fulfilment after accomplishing a goal. Just the act of experiencing or accomplishing something was enough to make us feel good about ourselves, without any external validation. These moments gave us intrinsic satisfaction; happiness or enjoyment that comes from within us, not from anywhere else. Pictures we could share wouldn’t even arrive for months.
However, the omnipresence of social media—enabled by equally ubiquitous smartphones—has dulled this intrinsic reward. For many of us today, it has become difficult to enjoy something beautiful, exciting or fulfilling in the moment. Rather than absorbing these moments for our own benefit, today, we reflexively share them with the world, seeking public affirmation of our lives, actions or achievements.
This quest for external validation doesn’t just affect spontaneous moments. The impulse pushes us to carefully stage moments for others to see. A popular example is the ever-escalating extravagance of gender reveals, where expecting parents publicize this once personal reveal in rituals that have become so elaborate, they’ve led to injuries, wildfires and other damage.
More recently, this same practice has been applied to a new phenomenon: elaborate college acceptance reveals on social media. It’s completely reasonable to share a celebratory picture in apparel of the university you will be attending, or to post an exuberant announcement. However, many families have escalated these acceptance announcements into professional, made-for-Instagram productions, complete with backdrops, banners and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of school merchandise on display.
It would be simple just to chalk this growing phenomenon up to narcissism, however, that is only half the story. More concerning, these public announcements demonstrate a growing cultural dependence on extrinsic motivation, where we require affirmation and accolades from others to feel good about our choices or accomplishments. Unlike intrinsic motivation, which comes from our internal drive for things we want, extrinsic motivation is not sustainable. If your satisfaction comes from others’ approval, you will always need more of it.
The data is very clear on the danger of this trend. Though technology and social media promised us connectivity, people today, especially those in their teens and 20s, experience more loneliness, anxiety and depression than at any point measured in history.
Part of the issue is that, in the same way that extrinsic motivation cannot sustain itself, extrinsic satisfaction cannot either. Social media conditions us to crave external approval, and we struggle to cope when it inevitably disappears, or when we try to unplug. We keep going back for more.
If we can’t enjoy discovering the gender of our baby, feel good about getting into college, or appreciate a beautiful sunset without likes, retweets or approval of others, we enter a vicious cycle. We do things not because they bring us satisfaction, but because we are seeking attention and approval from others. Then, those same people who approve of our posts often feel they are missing out on the very things they see us doing.
Ironically, many are disappointed that they aren’t experiencing our staged highlights, which we are not even fully enjoying in the moment.
In what’s become a very public world, we desperately need private moments. Moments where we simply enjoy ourselves or share the moment with others who are present. Moments to praise in private, moments to celebrate and reflect. Moments where the moment itself, and our enjoyment of it, can be enough.
See if you can have one of those moments this weekend.
Quote of The Week
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
– Abraham Maslow