Digital Wellbeing

Social Media and the Myth of the Perfect Life

Check out your social media feed, and you’ll probably see people ‘virtue signalling‘ in one of three key areas

  • Reaching‘ – people displaying wealth, education or success
  • Related‘ – people celebrating marriage, children or monogamy
  • Responsibility‘ – people flaunting their health, altruism and free will

People show off all the time and, arguably, that’s what social media is for. However, social media life portrays a cookie-cutter Kardashian caricature of the good life – which can actually be at odds with happiness – the degree to which we experience and evaluate life positively and with purpose.

In his new book Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life – Professor Paul Dolan, LSE psychologist and a leading researcher in human wellbeing, deconstructs the skin-thin social narratives of happiness in social media and beyond. His thesis is that social media magnifies the importance of these 3R’s – Reaching, Related and Responsibility – and this can undermine human happiness.

Drawing from his extensive international research into happiness and wellbeing, Dolan points to evidence that ‘Reaching‘ for money, educational attainment or occupational success can indeed increase wellbeing, but pushed to the extreme this can backfire. For example, those investing the most time and effort in making money tend to be less happy, not least because their focus on chasing riches means they have little time for other activities known to improve happiness. Dolan points to similar evidence for the fetishisation of education and occupational status. Nonetheless, social media magnifies a mythic social narrative of the perfect life built on reaching for success, wealth and educational achievement.

Likewise, how ‘Related‘ we feel – through romantic partnerships or children is indeed linked to happiness. But social media amplifies this social narrative and becomes prescriptive. For example, the typical parent in the UK will advertise their parental success by posting 1000 images of each child online before they reach the age of five. Yet, married with kids is not the only template for happiness and fulfilment. Nor is hormone-infused ‘passionate love’, which typically only lasts for up to two years, before evolving to long-term ‘companionate love’. In sum, social media representations can be reductive, prescriptive and misguided templates for love and life. Escaping the myth of the perfect life involves a more critical view of social media representations of relatedness.

Social media virtue signalling also includes displays of personal ‘Responsibility‘, including showing off how healthy, helpful or resilient we are. These traits are linked to happiness, but they tend to celebrate self-determination and discount the role of genetic factors, social environment, context or plain randomness. In doing so they perpetuate what Dolan sees as a myth of meritocracy, that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. Once more, escaping the myth of the perfect life means breaking out of stereotypical social narratives amplified and asepticized by social media.

At the end of Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life, Dolan comes down (tentatively) on the need to regulate our social media consumption, just as we regulate alcohol and tobacco. It’s not that social media is bad per se, argues Dolan, indeed social media can be positive in facilitating alternative social narratives, it’s just that we don’t know how to manage it – yet.

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