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What does it mean to find happiness? Is happiness the opposite of sadness? Does happily ever after exist? As someone who struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety for many years, I convinced myself that if only I could achieve A, B or C, I would defeat my depression and have a life of joyful productivity and boundless energy. In short, I would be happy. Now I question what happiness represents in my society. Happiness as a coveted state of being appears almost ‘mandatory’ in western culture. In turn, longings to attain happiness triggers anxiety and encourages envy in individuals while simultaneously reaping dividends in the happiness marketplace. A recent study at Reading University suggests that placing a premium value on attaining happiness may enhance feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction and even depression.

However, valuing happiness has also been shown to pardoxically decrease reported rates of happiness and well-being (Mauss et al. 2011). Excessive value placed on happiness, that is, wanting to feel happy very frequently and to an extensive degree (Ford et al. 2015b), has been poitively associated with symptoms of majoy depression (Ford et al. 2014 and bipolar disorder (Ford et al. 2015b, increased lonliness, and weakness in social connections (Maus et al 2012).

Consider, for example, happiness and body image: Say, I believe that I need to lose weight. Because I see the value placed on thinness in my society and want to be valued, I decide that I will be happy if I lose twenty pounds. Maybe I struggle to lose that twenty pounds, and I fall into a funk. I obsess about the necessity of losing those pounds. I grow more anxious and depressed. Perhaps I do lose the weight, but now I am anxious about keeping it off or even losing more weight, and I cannot fathom why I do not feel happier, even as my dress size suggests I should be over the moon. Because I feel a failure, I withdraw from others. I know that my sadness and anxiety make me lousy company, but I cannot seem to shake it off. It becomes a vicious cycle of social withdrawal, increased loneliness and depression, triggering more withdrawal. I find myself even further from happiness than I was twenty pounds ago.

How much of my skewed conception of reality comes from my internal wiring, and how much stems from the cultural sea where we all swim?

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The Fairytale Promise

As a child, I loved fairytales. Like so many suburban little girls of my generation, I aspired to be a fairytale princess. Cinderella was my favourite. She was poor and oppressed, abused by her jealous stepmother and stepsisters — for even though they had comforts and privilege, they lacked beauty and charm and bullied her mercilessly. Yet, she persevered, diligently working at her chores and bestowing her love and affection on her animal friends. Cinderella had beauty — so much so that her step-family went out of their way to sabotage her quest for happiness. The stepmother worked to hide her away, lest someone whisks her away to a life of ease. But as we all know magic and beauty prevailed. She scored a gorgeous dress, new shoes, a handsome prince and a shining palace where she lived happily ever after — the end.

We all have Cinderella stories that guide us on our journey to a happy life. We all experience desire, envy and anxiety for situations and things outside ourselves that we believe will make us feel better. Wanting to feel happier is a reasonable and attainable goal, so long as we understand it is a temporary feeling, not a permanent state of being. I might believe that getting married or buying a Prada bag — will make me happier, — and initially, it might, but not always. No one person can guarantee my happiness, and buyer’s remorse is a distinct possibility with both the husband and the handbag.

Commodified Happiness

But I live in a culture that places a high premium on romance and handbags, and that culture rakes in billions of dollars by persuading me that I will be infinitely happy swinging my bag on a romantic holiday as I frolic with my dream lover. I hail from a culture that believes absolutely in the individual’s right happiness, so much so that they added the pursuit of happiness to the constitution — though that right is often misinterpreted as the right to selfishly seek one’s pleasures at the expense of other people, creatures and the environment. Americans put a lot of stock in happiness, and so does the stock market. From the cradle to the grave, the market inundates us with the lure of happiness. We learn that if we buy this or that, live here or there; drive this car; have a degree from this university, and look the part of a happy person, we will know fulfilment. With the advent of social media, the happiness merchants can fine-tune their messages to target each of us individually. What Madison Avenue misses, social media influencers can also exploit, but not without a cost.

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Instagram Life v Real Life

Recently the Wall Street Journal revealed details of a study conducted by Facebook about its photo-sharing platform, Instagram. The study considered the links between depression, poor body image and suicidal ideation in teenaged girls using their platform. Comparing teen user experiences on other popular platforms with Instagram, the researchers found that:

“Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” states Facebook’s deep dive into teen girl body-image issues in 2020, noting that TikTok, a short video app, is grounded in performance, while users on Snapchat, a rival photo and video-sharing app, are sheltered by jokey filters that “keep the focus on the face.” In contrast, Instagram focuses heavily on the body and lifestyle. Georgia Wells et al September 14, 2021 Wall Street Journal.

Popular Instagram users wield significant leverage in the happiness market. Mostly young and attractive women with absurdly perfect bodies, pore-free complexions and seemingly blissful lives, these ‘influencers’ boast follower counts into the hundreds of millions and unparalleled celebrity status. Yet, beneath the dazzling smiles and flowing frocks on the platform, a dangerous undertow lurks to pull young users into a sea of self-doubt. With the lion’s share of Instagrams users (more than 40%) aged under twenty-two and predominately female, the impact on mental health promises to be substantial. Despite this, Facebook shows little interest in addressing these issues or sharing the bulk of its research (see Georgia Wells et al. September 14, 2021, Wall Street Journal). The emphasis on beauty, popularity and lifestyle is the driving force behind Instagram’s popularity and Facebook’s profit margin. According to the logic of the happiness marketplace, why fix what isn’t broken? (broken young women and girls aside, of course).


As we find ourselves bombarded by seductive images of shiny objects and people living beautiful lives, it helps to note that our social feeds do not reflect reality. Market forces carefully choose these images based on cumulative experience in the manipulation game, as well as through our algorithms. Advertisers learned long ago that the way to our money is through our desires, our egos and our anxieties. While moods and emotions are transitory, feelings of anxiety and depression are especially adept at taking hold of us, and act as border guards to keep more positive emotions at bay.

If you believe you may be struggling with your mental health, speak with someone you trust, see your doctor or reachout to a crisis hotline near you.

If social media brings you down, reflect on what feelings the images trigger. Find ways to deconstruct and critique the messages behind these images. Most of all remember you are not witnessing happy lives, but illusions, carefully mediated, filtered and performed to elicit your attention.

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Finally, cut down, log out, unplug and chat with someone who makes you laugh. We live in traumatic times. The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our collective well-being. Each and every day we learn new ways to navigate this new normal. We all need to cut ourselves some slack, stop comparing our lives to how we perceive the lives of others and do what we can to help each other out. This — all of this — is also transitory.


#socialconstructs #depression #socialmediaanddepression #Happiness #capitalism #socialmediainfluencers #socialmediaandanxiety #anxiety #patriarchalconstructs #selfesteem

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