A Beautiful (Non-Digital) Life

If you were to spend this weekend doing something utterly enjoyable, but you’re not allowed to post it on Facebook, what would it be? Give yourself a moment to think about this.

Some of you may be thinking, why shouldn’t I be allowed to post it? 

Good question. Why is telling 500 friends about it important? How does not being able to share it change your experience of this weekend activity? Would it make you feel less proud of yourself after toiling away at your vegetable garden? Would training for your first half-marathon lose its meaning?

Many of us are caught up in a digital web of information about the lives of our families, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Social media sites offer us a tabloid of news about ordinary people like us. When we see headlines about celebrities on tabloid magazines, we may not feel the urge to emulate these people because they are, after all, in a different league. Bombarded by constant updates on what our friends are up to, however, and we can’t help but engage in social comparison: are we as good as our peers?

We are also drawn to the immediacy of responses we get from our friends when we post something. Seeing 54 “Likes” on your picture of your cat playing in the snow makes you feel good. Getting 17 supportive comments within an hour about how your boss treated you helps you feel vindicated.

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Validation is important to our emotional well-being. But does this mean that most if not all private experiences have to be made public for them to be real? You love for your significant other, the joy of watching your kids tumble in a playhouse the peace that a Chopin etude brings… are they any less real because you didn’t tell anyone?

Did you miss the true beauty of a sunset because you were busy posting a picture of it on Instagram and responding to comments from friends (or wondering why it hasn’t received a single “Like” in an hour)?

Psychologists have long known that adding an external reward, such as compliments or monetary returns, reduces the joy a person experiences from an activity. Sometimes it even transforms the activity into a chore, to be completed just so one can get paid or praised. I’d like to add that anticipating the validation takes away our ability stay in the present. Only when we quit thinking ahead about how we are going to impress our friends about this can we truly immerse in the emotional intensity of what we are doing, seeing and feeling.

So resist the urge to reach out for your smartphone the next time you encounter something that moves you – and let it move you. As for the weekend activity I asked you about, let it be a private experience that only you have the honor of knowing and feeling.

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