Monday, July 24, 2017

"The Happiness Effect" by Donna Freitas: A Review

And soon, growing up online will be all anyone knows.

But this generation is the test generation, the one that faces working out all the kinks and complications, while we - their parents, coaches, teachers, mentors, professors, admissions officers, bosses, and future employers - are likewise faced with helping them through this massive cultural shift as best we can.

What I have called the happiness effect throughout this book - the requirement to appear happy on social media regardless of what a person actually feels - is an effect of our own making. We are the ones who have created this problem. Young adults have internalized the lesson that if you can't say something happy, you shouldn't say anything at all, even if you feel despair, dismay, anger, or any number of other emotions common to human experience, from us. We have burdened them by obsessing about how people in power might react when confronted with evidence that sometimes we are silly, do stupid things, get angry, say something dumb, appear less than perfect, and maybe even drink a beer before we turn twenty-one. This lesson on our part is obviously well-intended and, at least on its surface, sounds like excellent, rational advice. But the consequences are disturbing. Posting on social media for so many young adults means pretending one's true feelings are not really there; it requires hiding them and, ostensibly, lying for the sake of one's audience. Because of this, most of what anyone ever sees on social media are gleeful timelines of joy and accomplishment - the highlight reel. This can make anyone who isn't blissfully happy all the time feel even worse.

And none of us are immune to this part of the happiness effect - not really. No matter what age we are. (252)

We are officially living in a digital age. It is a revolution of sorts. The world we live in today is nothing like the world of two decades ago. The average citizen has access to more information in their pocket than any generation previously. This digital age, still in its infancy, is a real challenge and we are still waiting to see what the long term affects will be. For this reason, I was interested in the book The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost by Donna Freitas.

The thesis of the book is straightforward and made clear in the title and subtitle. The digital generation lives online and as a result feel pressure to be happy all the time. The reason is simple. Everyone online appears happy which reinforces the pressure to present oneself as happy. It is a vicious cycle and given the threat of cyberbullying, sexting, anonymous gossip sites, etc., the pressure continues to mount.

Much of the authors argument is based off of a survey done among mostly college students as well as personal interviews that are focus of the book. As such, the book provides great insight into the minds the average college student that has largely grown up in this digital age. The author explores the dominant social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, YikYak, Instagram, Snapchat, and others. What makes these sites popular is different from the others, yet what unites them is this need to give the allusion that we are happy.

In other words, our online world is filtered but the real world is not. The digital generation has realized that what they post online could be used negatively against them by future employers, spouses, children, and others. As such their only online options are anonymity (which leads us down a dark path) and fantasy.

What is most striking about the book, at least to me, is how this is a a retelling of an old story. The author notes near the end that humans have always filtered out the bad for the good (though she notes that the digital age documents every moment unlike previous generations). This need to hide our discontentment is not new, it is as old as Eden's Fall.

The pastor in me, however, draws me to two conclusions. First, this pursuit for happiness is vanity in the tradition of Ecclesiastes. Happiness can not be faked nor can it be portrayed by an Instagram filter or discovered on Pinterests. The interviews made this point abundantly clear. Whether the students were fighting social justice from the comfort of their local coffee shop or guarding their online reputations, what they are looking for is vanity. We cannot live bifurcated lives as our online lives do not reflect reality.

Secondly, contentment is found exclusively in Christ, not in filtered images or in status updates. We used to keep up with the Jones's, now we seem to be doing the same with our online selves. The book discussed happiness and rightly so. Happiness is the best we might obtain on earth apart from Christ, but that is largely a vain enterprise. Only Christ gives us joy and that joy is not based off of likes or retweets.

What will become of the digital age remains to be seen but I am confident that its challenges, at the root, will not be new. All us are still longing for meaning and joy. It is our responsibility as Christians to show the world that it is found in the Savior, not on any social network.
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