The link between social media and dissatisfaction

Across the globe, individuals struggle with mental illness everyday. Simultaneously, advances in medicine, welfare, and human rights have elevated living standards for billions. Mental illnesses are complex, and their causes are still relatively unknown.

I believe the paradox of proliferated mental illness and technological advancement is a fascinating by-product of evolutionary adaptation. Social media, increased marketing, and—oddly enough—higher living standards have morphed this adaptation from a beneficial survival mechanism to a detrimental, self-destructive second nature.

We have a genetically hard-wired desire to survive that is incredibly strong. To ensure we’re doing everything correctly, we get our cues from other Homo sapiens. We think, “if I’m like everyone else—in terms of health, wealth, and happiness—I am doing well.” It would be exceptionally exhausting to constantly compare ourselves to every other human on earth. To simplify, humans have a more efficient comparison tool. We almost exclusively compare ourselves to the people immediately around us.

Yet, the irresistible allure of comparison can harm us. In America, Utah ranks first among states in terms of life satisfaction, but has the ninth highest suicide rate. In contrast, New York places 45th in life satisfaction but has the country’s lowest suicide rate1. David Lester, a suicidologist who was featured on a Freakonomics podcast, discussed this theory:

If your quality of life is poor, and it may be you’re unemployed, you’re an oppressed minority, whatever it might be, there’s a civil war going on, you know why you’re miserable. You know as the quality of life in a nation gets better and you are still depressed—well, why? Everybody else is enjoying themselves, getting good jobs, getting promotions. Why are you still miserable? There’s no external cause to blame your misery upon, which means it’s more likely that you see it as some defect or stable trait in yourself. And therefore you’re going to be depressed and unhappy for the rest of your life.”

I believe social media is one of the main culprits behind the mental health epidemic. In, say, the 1950s, our traditional “immediate surroundings”—as Stouffer puts it—were our friends, our family, maybe a few of our acquaintances. The introduction and omnipresence of social media has done two things. Firstly, it has made everyone our immediate surroundings. An average Facebook user has hundreds of “friends” that they see every day on their newsfeed. The modern scope of comparison is significantly greater. Secondly, we only see what people want to post. A newsfeed is devoid of the monotony of everyday life. It is the highlights of people’s days, weeks, and months. This gives individuals a spurious sense of reality, heightening dissatisfaction with their own, seemingly boring lives. Indeed, recent studies have shown that overuse of sites like Facebook can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of jealousy.

Marketing also comes into play. A typical American is exposed to 5,000 advertisements a day, a 150% increase from 30 years ago4. The ubiquity of these ads normalize splendour and extravagance. The idyllic life portraits and handpicked models are registered by our subconscious. After a while, we’re unimpressed and indifferent towards it all. And when we are unimpressed by the 2.0 Version of Life, we become apathetic towards our own—however, apathy is not the same as mental illness. The former is an emotion, while the latter is an illness.

I do believe there is an overlap between the two. Higher living standards, social media use, and exposure to the unrealistic ideals used by marketing may not trigger mental illnesses, themselves. They can, however, inadvertently cause us to devalue our lives and foster feelings of apathy, worthlessness, and guilt. There may not be a causal relationship, but there could be a correlative link.

Indeed, the paradox of wellbeing is a mind-boggling phenomenon. In my opinion, the widespread use of social media, manipulative marketing, and higher living standards have had a significant impact on the prevalence of mental illness in society today.