Looking for meaning? Look within.

There are more ways than ever before to connect with people: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tinder etc. More ways to reach out to people = more human interaction = more life meaning. Right? You’d think so. But it seems what we’re actually getting is more depression, more loneliness and less life satisfaction. Maybe, then, to live a meaningful existence, you have to connect with yourself first.

John Elder

Hamlet. Don’t panic, it’s just a word. Think of him as just one more soul in the world – just like you on certain days! – angst-ing over what to do next. Do I listen to the ghost of my father or what? Until the swords break out and the queen has drunk poison, Shakespeare’s  most introverted play is a heavy, gloomy tale. But at least Hamlet did some deep thinking, and wrestled with a few difficult moral choices.

Imagine if there’d been social media in those ye olde times: young Hamlet no longer pondering to be or not to be or knocking off his uncle, but chasing likes and quality high-profile followers to his Twitter account.

Imagine him joining a sympathetic online thread of conversation, one that appears to be full of comforting certainties and friendly faces: those convenient if tyrannical friends who he’ll never meet. He’ll look at the photographs of their overly-curated lives. Being a sad fellow he might – as many sad people do on social media – pretend to be thriving, so as to fit in with the purported winners in life.

On the other hand, sadness is a reliable and well-worn strategy for getting attention and Hamlet has plenty to work with. Bro, my girlfriend went mad and drowned herself in the river. She was my everything. Miss you babe. 

The point is, suddenly Hamlet’s brain space is taken up with social posturing and politics and the anxiety that comes with being suddenly blocked and ghosted by people with whom he seemed to have shared so much in common.  

Furthermore, he’s lost his normal good manners and thoughtfulness. As per the emotional rules of becoming connected – as we like to call it – Hamlet adopts the digital citizen’s quick and impulsive right of reply. Letting fly without thinking about it.

 This sh*t needs to be up on Facebook. Stat. Don’t even think about it, just let it fly people. Image via Wait But Why:  https://bit.ly/2smYL2gx

This sh*t needs to be up on Facebook. Stat. Don’t even think about it, just let it fly people. Image via Wait But Why: https://bit.ly/2smYL2gx

Too much social media makes us shallow and sad.

The net result? According to a Canadian study Hamlet falls victim to the ‘shallowness hypothesis’. Where he went looking for a deep and sustaining connection with the world, he’s ended up dabbling in the kiddies pool.

According to researchers from the University of Windsor, the ‘shallow hypothesis’ predicts that frequent (and presumably emotionally invested) use of texting and social media platforms such as Facebook promotes “rapid, shallow thought that can result in cognitive and moral ‘shallowness’ if used too frequently.”

Participants in the study completed an online questionnaire comprised of five measures that assessed their social media and texting behaviour, use of reflective thought, life goals, personality dimensions, and demographic characteristics. The researchers found participants who frequently texted or used social media “were less likely to engage in reflective thought and placed less importance on moral life goals.”

Other research finds that too-frequent use of social media leads to loneliness and lower life satisfaction – especially if your self-esteem is shaky in the first place. Consequently, high frequency use of social media is now being linked to depression.

“We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together,” says lead scientist Professor Brian Primack, from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, which conducted the loneliness research. He was speaking to the Independent in the UK: “While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”

It can make us feel like life has no meaning, too.

Social and digital media are great resources, but it’s not where you go to find happiness or deep personal connections. What the research tells us: not only do we fail to wholly connect with these opinionated ghosts in the machine, we end up losing ourselves (especially younger adults) and what we stand for, in part because we haven’t wholly articulated and defended our values.

But there is something more primal at play here: social media does not allow us to be alone with our thoughts. Which is probably what is driving us into cyberspace in the first place – and this is where things get heavy in a Hamlet kind of way.

 Technology? Our fave. Social media? So much fun. Taking it back to the old school every now and again? Necessary. Image via John Atkinson:  https://wronghands1.com/

Technology? Our fave. Social media? So much fun. Taking it back to the old school every now and again? Necessary. Image via John Atkinson: https://wronghands1.com/

Social media is now being talked about as a fast-track to an existential crisis – a despairing sense that life has no purpose or meaning. In fact, the issue is being taught to high school students – and inspiring advice on how to shake off this dread by escaping social media from time to time. As this essay notes: 

“If you’re an active user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media sites, you may be on the fast track to an existential catastrophe… instead of savouring life’s little moments, we feel an urgent need to document our experiences, share them and receive instant validation from our growing lists of followers. And if the content we post isn’t validated with likes or shares, we feel anxious, frustrated or depressed. Maybe we even begin to question whether or not our experiences or perspectives are legitimate or worthwhile, especially when we compare them to the experiences our friends share on social media.”

But of course, as human beings we have always questioned our worth. And really, social media is merely a powerful enabler for escaping from the big questions – and from the truth that defines us as humans: living in the show of our inevitable, eventual passing.  

In 1973, a time when ostentatious introspection was in vogue, US anthropologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, a book that argued that it’s our fear of death that makes us prone to losing ourselves in all sorts of oblivion, such as social media or back-yard carpentry. The book won the Pullitzer Prize. You can read a critique of it here, where the author notes:

“Like Pascal, Kierkegaard and others in the existentialist tradition who write of our constant need for diversion from the dismal reality of our condition, Becker argues that our primary death anxiety necessarily and quite literally drives us to distraction.”

Take home message? Chase connections with yourself first.

 Wisdom by Japanese swordsman, philosopher, writer and rōnin, Miyamoto Musashi. Image via Pinterest.

Wisdom by Japanese swordsman, philosopher, writer and rōnin, Miyamoto Musashi. Image via Pinterest.

Once upon a time, all had a heaven to go to in the after-life. But nowadays that cosmology doesn’t figure for many people. Nothing awaits after death and so what is the point? Where once there was God, there is now the goddesses of Instagram – and plugging your ears to the loud clicking of the clock on the wall of your own life. Time’s passing.

OMG!!!!! 

Go back to the 50s, and you’ll find it’s all cool: the chain-smoking, black coffee drinking French existentialists – Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and such – had already solved the problem of living with knowledge of one’s death, and that life itself has no intrinsic meaning. The answer is to face up to it, take yourself seriously: under the pressure of time and in the face of absurdity, make your own life as a free person, and therein you’ll find your meaning or at least your purpose.  

As Hamlet no doubt pondered, momentarily, wistfully, perhaps even with bitter regret as he died his sad death after a vexing life: “To be is to be.”

Interested in making meaningful connections in the wide world? Connect with yourself first. Get off your chair. Go to the front door. And before stepping out into the everything that makes up the everything, take your pulse with your finger, device or app. Marvel at your heartbeat. What’s it telling you? Get moving.  

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HeadUp beta is currently being tested by a small group of our loyal Insiders – an exciting milestone for us! And you know what sets us apart from all the other noise on the Internet? Our sole purpose, raison d'être and something we’re pretty damn good at is connecting you to the person who matters most: you. We’re here to help you look within – and in the process – really get to know yourself. If you’d like early-bird access, register here.

John is a Melbourne journalist and writer. For 21 years he was senior writer for the Sunday Age newspaper and Fairfax Media, with a special interest in science, medicine and health research – and in philosophical questions facing modern society. He continues to be a life-issues columnist for The Sunday Age, science and health contributor for The New Daily and is an editorial advisor for the Clueless Economist. 

*Please note: header image by digital art pioneer, Nancy Stahl: https://bit.ly/2Oh6SKI