Tag Archives: Social Media

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

“Privacy is theft”, a warning about invasive technology

Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist

If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that  communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.

Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.

It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.

The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.

It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home?  Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.

Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.