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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Raffi Bilek

The Opposite of Happiness is... Instagram

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Social media makes people miserable.

There is a growing body of research that substantiates this claim – there is a measurable mental health crisis, particularly among teenage girls, in modern societies across the globe – but I think it’s not hard to see with our own two eyes anyway.

To be clear, I am not judging anyone who uses social media. I use myself, albeit in a limited fashion for professional purposes. I just want to highlight the problems we face when we engage with it.

This isn’t going to be an academic paper or a deep dive into psychology. It’s just a brief(ish) look at the various ways in which we’re hurting ourselves with our own fun tech tools. (Instagram was chosen for the title of this post because it appears to be the most damaging, possibly because its particular niche puts people’s bodies on display and up for constant approval. But anecdotal evidence suggests that TikTok is probably also a contender for Most Likely to Harm You.)

After all, who doesn’t know that crummy feeling of seeing a bunch of photos on Facebook of your friends having a great time in their perfect clothes with their perfect kids eating a perfect meal and then logging off and finding that their own life doesn’t quite look so perfect?

The attitudes and behaviors cultivated by social media are bad for you in ways that we largely understand and recognize. They run up against a number of fundamental mindsets the Torah guides us towards. Here are the ones that came to my mind.

1. Your self-definition

Perhaps the most flagrant profanation wrought by social media is the idea that everything we do should be evaluated based on how much others like it. From the size and shape of your body (again, a problem for girls much more than for boys) to the cake you baked yesterday, everything in the world of social media is assessed according to the number of likes, shares, and retweets it gets.

Let’s understand the issue here. Pirkei Avos famously asks, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man . . . Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination.” Isn’t there a simpler answer to these questions? Who is wise? One who knows a lot of stuff. Who is strong? One who can lift 400 pounds. What’s with the philosophical angle here?

The Maharal explains that a person’s worth can never be measured relatively. If you think you’re strong because you can bench 400, you’ll feel pretty weak when you run into a guy who can lift 500. If you think you’re smart because you never lose at Trivial Pursuit, you’re in for a rude awakening when you get clobbered on Jeopardy.

A person’s self-definition cannot be based on what others think or they are doomed to the misery of fawning after the approval of every Joe on the street.

Welcome to Instagram.

If you want to be happy, don’t get yourself stuck on a system whose entire currency is how much other people like what you’ve posted. Putting your satisfaction with your life and yourself in someone else’s hands is a major gamble and a never-ending source of anxiety.

2. Your internality

Related to the problem of institutionalizing external appraisal is the very idea that the things you own, do, or think ought to be available for public assessment at all.

It is probably not news to you that tznius is a cherished value in Judaism. What makes a person great is not what we do when we’re in front of a crowd but what we do when nobody is looking. The best way to give tzedakah is with total anonymity (and no plaque!). The greatest moments in Jewish history were done in solitude: when the Torah was given to Moshe, for example, he was covered in a thick cloud, and it was just him and the Aibishter. (This is a point I’ve made before.)

The real you is who you are on the inside, not what people see on the outside. Only Hashem sees into your heart (Shmuel I 16:7).

Turning ourselves into performers whose lives – from our noteworthy accomplishments to our most mundane moments – are on display constantly, or even frequently, or even just more than they need to be, decimates the internal world we are called upon to build in order to develop into our best selves and build a relationship with our creator.

And even for those of us who don’t post our personal lives on Facebook, merely inhabiting a world where such is the norm is harmful to our spiritual selves. Really, the most basic functions of the social media worlds are directly at odds with our Divine mandate in this world.

3. Your appraisal of your life

There is a third clause in the Mishna we quoted above from Pirkei Avos: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” Social media directly attacks this worldview by constantly exposing you to what everyone else is doing. And what everyone else is doing, of course, is GREAT.

Because nobody posts the cake they baked that totally flopped; they post the one that came out right. If it took 7 tries, you aren’t privy to that. You just see the final product, and it looks perfect and effortless.

So does their family. On Facebook everyone has the perfect marriage and the perfect family. All the kids are smiling at the camera from their vacation destination in Jerusalem or Costa Rica or wherever they are (which actually their parents paid for or they won in a raffle and really they’re in debt, but that doesn't get mentioned in your news feed). And this is the one photo they succeeded in taking in which everyone is smiling because in all the other ones the kids are fighting just like yours do and the parents are exhausted and cranky just like you are.

But you don’t see any of that.

You just see people’s perfectly curated lives and get to feel jealous and depressed at the same time. As one commentator has put it, you’re comparing your cutting room floor to their highlights reel. Your life video will always come up short.

The irony is, the people whose photos you are binge-viewing like a food addict who keeps stuffing themselves with junk food are also looking at your photos and feel just as jealous of your photo-op life as you do of theirs.

4. Your time

So now you’re busy curating your Instagram photos and posts because you have to put a decent image out there. (Even for folks who are not aiming for movie-star glamor, I would wager they are not posting images of how they look right when they get out of bed.) How much time does a person end up spending to make sure their face, their cake, their family looks just right?

(How much time does a person spend on social media in general, regardless of the relative misery-inducingness of the activity? I just googled it and the top answer said, “an average user spends 2 hours and 31 minutes daily.” Yikes.)

What could you do with a couple extra hours a day? There are a lot of activities proven to promote happiness – exercise, meeting friends in person, and meditation are some examples – imagine how much better we’d all feel if we devoted some of that social media time to things that we know increase wellbeing instead of decreasing it.

Of course, along with the time sink involved in putting the right content on social media, there is the tremendous pressure (especially for young people). You have to make sure you look right, dress right, say the right things, and then worry if you actually did get it right. No wonder it takes a lot of time! And no wonder that time spent doesn’t make people feel very good!

5. Your good name

What if you get it wrong? What if you post something that falls flat, or even offends people (and in this day and age it takes remarkably little to achieve that)?

Your failure is all over the place in minutes to hours. Literally, all over the place. Your own social network of people you actually know can get wind of it almost instantly, but the wider world gets to see your gaffes pretty quickly too. There are plenty of stories of people’s lives being ruined via Twitter over the course of a few hours (no exaggeration – Google Justine Sacco).

So failure is now a much more brutal and humiliating experience now that social media can instantly and exponentially expand its reach.

And since we’re all aware of it, there’s a subtle (or not-so-subtle) stress that accompanies social media use (again, especially for young people).

6. Your grit

There is another mindset fundamental to Yiddishkeit that social media destroys, namely, the critical value of hard work. The gemara in Megillah 6b says that if someone tells you they’ve accomplished but haven’t sweated for it, don’t believe it. Hashem runs the world with perfect justice; if you don’t put in much, you don’t get out much. That’s how it works.

Constantly being exposed to people’s beautiful finished products (see point #3) accustoms us to seeing product without effort, success without toil. Sure, maybe we know that the cake didn’t bake itself. But your experience of the post was just a few seconds to a few minutes, not the hour it took to actually create a beautiful dessert, and the brain wires itself accordingly. Next time you want to bake a cake, it’s going to be that much harder to spend an hour on it or more. And if it takes you more than one try, forget about it!

Lost is the value of exertion, of diligence, of resilience. The instant-gratification world that we are all already entrenched in is enthusiastically bolstered and intensified by the powers of social media.

7. Your relationships

Perhaps nowhere is the quick-fix mirage more true, and more ironic, than in the very area of our lives social media was supposed to facilitate: our social lives.

Relationships take work. Friendships grow with the investment of time, energy, and self. They do not grow via emojis, GIFs, and likes. Helping someone move builds relationship. Working on a project together builds relationship. Crying on a friend’s should builds relationship. Clicking the reaction button underneath their post about their cat does not.

We so easily get tricked into thinking that we are maintaining connections with family and friends across the world when in fact we are sustaining only the most superficial of connections – ones that do not actually contribute to our lives and our well-being at all. Research has shown that relationships are what make the difference between a happy, satisfying life and the quiet despair that is overtaking modern society. (Anxiety and depression are on the rise at alarming rates).

To be fair, it’s not that there’s no relational (or other) benefit at all to social media, and many people do use it to keep up a connection with a long-distance friend or relative; but it would be hard to argue that social media on balance does more good than harm to the social lives of the people who use it most.

You will get a lot more value – and a lot more happiness – from leaving your smartphone at home and going out for coffee with someone in person than from reading through the status messages of everyone you never get to see.

8. Your choices

A final point I want to toss into this manifesto: one of my rebbeim, Rav Orlowek, told over a story that stuck in my mind. It concerned a gadol (exactly which one escapes my memory) whose talmid once brought him a novel beverage to enjoy – the newfangled thing called soda. The rav thanked him and carried on learning. The talmid explained, “Rebbe, you’re supposed to drink it now, otherwise the fizz goes out and it’s not so good anymore!” The rav pushed the glass away. “It is not going to tell me when to drink it.”

I think that for many folks who grew up with social media (I thankfully graduated college just when Facebook was launching), the news feed is just a normal part of life – you see what’s being posted that The Algorithm has decided you want to see. You can manually look up specific people or subjects, but the default is a stream of information chosen by an entity that is not you and that does not have your best interests in mind.

It is critical to our minds and our souls to choose what we consume, what we see – just to choose in general. Giving up important choices to others is not the way we build ourselves up into the people God has designed us to be. All we have is our choices: our character traits, our intelligence, our abilities – everything else is given to us by God. Giving up choice in any form – but especially those that may lead down unsavory paths (don’t tell me you’ve never accidentally been exposed even to something minorly inappropriate when clicking from profile to profile or video to video) – is giving up something fundamental to who we are.

Look, again, I’m not judging anyone for what they do or don’t do online. I’m not perfect either. (Really! No joke!) I would, however, like to help people make their decisions with open eyes, and maybe give us all a nudge to pay more attention to where we’re spending our time online. We all have this vague idea that social media is a bit of a vice, but we prefer not to think too much about it.

I think you should think about it.

Social media is making us all miserable. Let’s take control of our lives and our wellbeing by using the free will that God gave us in the way He wants us to.

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