The United States is less happy and more depressed than it’s been in a long time, and people are trying to figure out why.
The World Happiness Report shows us down for 3 years in a row, and we’re currently holding only the #19 spot in the world.
Many point immediately to personal mobile devices and social media, but I had an idea earlier tonight that I thought was worth capturing.
What if we’re less happy because the people we’re trying to please have changed?
Being a student of evolutionary psychology, I firmly believe that happiness is all about pleasing evolution. Or, more specifically, convincing evolution that we’re winning, which tells our body to send us happiness signals.
So the question is, what do you have to do today—vs. decades or centuries ago—to convince evolution that you’re winning?
I the US in like 1950 or so, one basically had to please your God, your family, and maybe your boss (who made up a distant third, if that). With religion you know you’re imperfect already, so you’re just striving to be a little better every day. And with your family, you’re trying to do be a good parent, spouse, etc.
This doesn’t take into account the many who were struggling with oppression and survival still.
For many it was a relatively stable situation. And if you go back even further the number of people who you had to impress shrinks even further.
In addition to the number of people one has to worry about getting signals of winning from, there’s also the factor of update cycles, i.e., how often are you getting new or widely changing signals from those that determine if you’re winning?
How often do you get changing signals from God about how you’re doing? From your family. From your close friends. Or from the community—which back in the day was just the local people in the town.
People have always had wins and losses on all those fronts on a regular basis, and sometimes you’re more popular or less popular with your kids or spouse or church. But in general, I don’t think one’s overall reputation among those groups changed too drastically, or too often.
I think it has to do with how often you put yourself out there to be judged, like a performer. If you’re a church pastor and a new pastor takes your flock, that’s a strong signal of denial and loss. But if you’re one of the flock you’re not broadcasting much, and thus don’t have as many opportunities to be rejected.
Social media makes people performers to the world
So it could be that the reason depression and suicide are rising so quickly is that the number of people we’re trying to please is rising, combined with the exponential growth in the opportunities to either be cheered or ostracised.
Social media is like vanilla extract, but for life.
These two things combine to massively speed up (and exaggerate) the messages to evolution that we’re either winning or losing at life.
Imagine that you’re a basic housewife or merchant living in the United States in the 1950s, and that you live in a small town in Missouri. You have a spouse, two kids, and a house that looks a lot like the others around it. Everyone goes to the same Church.
Occasionally you get a promotion or a demotion, or you have a new kid, or you start playing an instrument at the church. And these things do change how your family, and the church, and the people at work see you—but only very slightly.
Over time, you’re just you, and the amount of rank and popularity shift you experience in life is relatively small and gradual, when it does happen.
Compare that to someone today, living in a big city or a small town. You’re a stay-at-home parent, or you work at a local business, but you don’t really go to church.
You have a few local friends but you mostly talk to them online, along with the other hundreds of people you have collected from high school to your mid-thirties.
Your main activity is using social media. You’re constantly posting pictures of your food, or your kids, or the vacation you’re going to go on. And you’re constantly watching which of your hundreds of friends are liking which pictures. And how much they like them compared to how much they like other peoples’ content.
When you post lots of stuff, and like lots of stuff, and then take a break to do something at work, or with the kids, your brain can’t wait to get back on Facebook to see how you did. Turns out, you only got a couple of likes for the picture of your kid’s birthday, but the girls you hung out with the week before gave over a hundred likes to another mother who posted pics of her kid at the same time. Why do they like her more?
You suddenly feel a sense of loss and dread and rejection like nothing else.
Because evolution is constantly looking for signals that you’re winning or losing, and it sits ready to punish you or reward you accordingly.
Evolution is tirelessly keeping score.
If you put out all those story shares, and cute little posts, and likes of other people’s content—those just got entered into the Evolutionary Ledger as pings of success. And evolution listens closely to whether those pings come back or not.
When they do, you get a rush. You’re winning! And you just programmed your hopeless built-thousands-of-years-ago brain to immediately repeat those pings out to the world so you can get another rush.
Every time you pick up your phone and check social media, that’s what you’re doing. You’re checking to see if those pings came back—hoping for replies.
When they don’t come back—and you hear silence instead—you can feel Evolution staring at you disapprovingly. And the failure burns through you.
A simple solution
The great news is that this model—if it’s at least somewhat accurate—admits immediately of a solution: reduce the number and frequency of pings for approval. And when you do ask for them, make sure you’re asking groups that are stable, trusted, and that you actually care about.
Family, close friends (that you actually visit in person or talk to on the phone), and cherished colleagues.
People like that are 1) more likely to give you generally positive feedback, and 2) the feedback is likely to be quite stable and predictable. When you talk to your spouse or your best three friends, they’re not likely to tell you that they hate you one day, and tell you they love you the next. Whereas the internet will absolutely do that.
The easiest solution is to just massively reduce your number of success beacons you’re sending out in hopes of replies. That means largely getting off of social media, and my first recommendation there is to abandon Facebook.
Give evolution fewer inputs to track.
Second, take a very serious look at who you care about in life, i.e., who you should care about, and limit your pings just to them as much as possible. That means spending more time working on your own projects instead of worrying about what everyone on the internet is doing, and spending quality time with the people you care about.
In short, massively reduce your circle by cutting out the internet from your friend group. The internet is not a friend—it’s an amorphous blob that can either sprinkle pixie dust or depression on your life. Don’t treat it like a spouse or friend that you need the approval of.
And finally, if you are someone who creates things and shares them, do so in a healthy way. What does that mean? It means putting things out there without attaching a success ping to them, so that Evolution isn’t listening over your shoulder for a response.
Establish your goals as self-betterment, the love of your family, the love of your friends, and the improvement of the world. And then go about your craft—whatever that is.
When you make something, like a blog post about Evolution Success Pings for example, just put it out there and move on to the next thing. Consider all the work to be done—regardless of whether nobody notices or you get some great vibes.
Evolution’s hardware and firmware
What studying Evolutionary Biology has taught me is how much our bodies—and therefore brains and minds—are fish out of water. We weren’t built for modern society. We’re GEICO commercial neanderthals walking around in the world of Star Trek, and we’re doing a bad job of it.
Using a computer/hacking metaphor, Evolution is the very old firmware running on our brains, and we’re trying to run modern society software on top.
It’s not working.
That’s why I study this stuff. So I can see how bad our hardware, firmware, and software is. So I can hack it. And that’s precisely what this is—this recommendation to reduce your group size and the number of success pings. It’s a hack for the bad code running on all our brains right now.
Let me be even more direct.
Evolution is our bad firmware, and it’s tuned for signals of success and failure coming from our environment, which it then rewards with bliss or depression. In older societies, this worked fine because our groups were small and those inputs didn’t change often or vary that much.
Now that’s different.
Social Media is malware that’s been developed to massively increase the number and frequency of your success pings (seeking of approval), and it’s designed to interact directly with your firmware (Evolution), which in turn affects your hardware (mood, energy, hormones).
Everything you see, hear, and read is code running on your brain, and social media is malware.
It’s code designed to compel you to do things. To click things. To like things. To share things. And it works because it has a direct line to your firmware/hardware.
This is why everyone’s comparing social media to a drug, along with the requisite addiction metaphors. It’s because both social media and drugs are hacks that affect our underlying hardware.
That’s all fine. That’s the beauty of hacking: once you know how a system works, you can change the inputs to get what you want.
And in our case, that means controlling the code running on our firmware/hardware. Now that we know our tech stack is extremely vulnerable to this type of malware, the answer is simply to avoid it.
- Drop Facebook as much as possible given family requirements.
- If you post to Twitter/Instagram, do so without caring about the response.
- Focus on your own projects, and use social media to syndicate, not to seek approval.
- Use social media to find and interact with other like-minded creators/thinkers, not trolls.
- Reconnect with your inner circle of family and friends, and spend time with them and talk to them via voice/video.
In short, ask yourself what projects and efforts you really care about, and focus on those things knowing that the only approval you really need is from your close friends, your family, and the small group of wonderful people you meet when sharing your work with the world.
The internet is not your friend, so stop treating it like one.