Social media has completely transformed a range of our life experiences. Consider travel: It’s not just that dodging selfie sticks makes navigating attractions harder, but because tourists no longer even gaze at the monuments, piazzas, or works of art. Instead, they turn their backs and look at themselves on a screen.
The experience of art and history has been replaced with the experience of a digital representation of those things. We spend more time thinking about how otherpeople will perceive our adventures than actually having them.
These days, the urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex—although both are driven by a need to connect. After food and shelter, our need to belong and feel positively connected to others is arguably the Number One predictor of well-being, happiness, health, and even longevity. Trying to connect in the virtual sphere, though, is actually counterproductive. Here are three ways virtual connection is ruining your real-life relationships:
1. You’ve lost the moment.
What do you do on social media? You share moments—moments of joy, of friendship, humor, and beauty. Ironically, by engaging with social media, you lose the moment. In your quest to connect virtually, you disconnect from your reality and the people in it.
You lose the experience of happiness in the process of trying to refine your smile for public consumption. Your attachment to positive reinforcement through likes and comments will keep you detached.
We’re happiest when our mind is in the present moment, not when it’s wandering off somewhere. Truly savoring a positive experience—fully immersing yourself in it—enhances the experience and the happiness you derive from it. As soon as you pull out that selfie stick, you’ve lost it. You’ve effectively pressed Pause on the moment.
2. It’s addictive and self-absorbing.
Instead of deriving pleasure from your experiences and the people around you, you seek it—along with validation—from your phone. Your brain’s pleasure centers also respond positively to novelty, of which social media offers a constant stream via constant new interactions, new posts, and new pictures. Ironically, a tool meant to connect you with others makes you feel you isolated and obsessed over the appearance you’re making, the responses you’re getting, and the impressions you are giving. (Was what I wrote OK? Why aren’t more likes?) Authentically connecting with others has numerous benefits. Self-focus, on the other hand, is associated with anxiety and depression.
Instead of deriving pleasure from your experience—say, travel—your device becomes your main source of pleasure. Unwittingly, it makes you less connected and more narcissistic, and with that comes a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows caused by obsessive attention-seeking.
3. It’s actually harmful to relationships.
One study found that the mere presence of a cellphone while two people are talking interferes with their feelings of closeness, connection, and communication. We are profoundly social creatures wired to connect with others. We are exquisitely fine-tuned to understand people by internalizing the minutest changes in their body language and faces. We automatically mirror and mimic these movements, creating a sense of understanding toward the feelings of others. This is why you cringe when you see someone fall on the street or why you feel sad when you see someone’s eyes filling with tears.
If devices interfere with your conversations, you undermine your own ability to connect with others. You miss the flicker of emotion in your child’s eye, the look of exasperation on your partner’s face, or a friend’s attempt to share something meaningful with you. In theory, social media is designed to connect us. In reality, it acts as a barrier.
It’s fairly simple: Our impulse to broadcast our lives makes us miss out on them. So on your next vacation, leave your selfie stick at home, take your social media apps off your smartphone, and lose yourself in the experience. Then you might actually do something worth writing home about.
For more science-backed tips for happiness and success, check out my new book The Happiness Track.
A version of this article was originally posted on MindBodyGreen
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