Freitas, Donna. The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost. Oxford University Press, 2016. 280 pgs.
Nicholas Carr notes in his fantastic book The Shallows, “When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium’s effects are good or bad, it’s the content they wrestle over.” This phenomenon is exactly what we see whenever the effects of social media are debated. But could there be something more going on? Could the medium itself be leading to harmful effects? In The Happiness Effect, Donna Freitas presents a strong argument that something more is going on, and she does it in a fascinating way.
The Happiness Effect is an interesting book in that the chapters are basically narrative transcripts of Freitas’ interviews she conducted at college campuses all over the country, interviews which were supplemented by a massive survey of college students on their habits and views of social media. There are twelve chapters with an appendix directed at parents and educators on how they can help young adults attain a more balanced and healthy relationship with social media. The topics covered include comparisons, keeping up an image, religion, sex and bullying, among others.
The interviews with the students are fascinating. I got the overall sense that the students were searching for meaning as they tried to navigate this new social media reality, and many are struggling. They loathe the “24/7” nature of social media and smartphones; yet, they cannot get away from it. There seems to be an inevitability to social media that they cannot escape. Many of the students were able to articulate thoughtful critiques of the way they and their fellow students use social media. And yet, despite the thoughtful examination, they still fell prey to this “happiness effect.” They still felt the pressure to project an image of happiness and success.
Interestingly, those students that had the healthiest relationship with social media (in Freitas’ estimation) were those approaching social media from a Christian worldview. They saw social media as means by which they could share their faith, and this approach allowed them to be genuinely authentic. They could share their feelings more freely than most students, Freitas encountered. This approach to social media did not demoralize these students; rather, it “energized” them. While Freitas does not analyze her impression, I was encouraged by this. I know that the Christian worldview can subvert and redeem social media use. Christians have the resources to handle this new reality. When social media is seen in light of God and his gospel, all the temptations to maintain an image, to appear happy, and to stay connected 24/7 are undermined.
My main critique of this book is with the depth of Freitas’ analysis. Freitas seems to suggest that there’s nothing really wrong with the media; it’s that these young adults just haven’t been trained in it correctly. They’ve listened to reactive advice rather than proactive advice. If we simply used social media better, then things would be better. But is that true? It seems too easy. What if the media themselves value things that make for a perfect environment for the “happiness effect” to thrive? That’s a different question with a much different answer.
In the final chapter, she offers eight values for social media use (Vulnerability, Authenticity, Tolerance, Forgetting, Now, Play, Unplugging, Quitting). Each value she offers is helpful and worth putting into practice. It’s interesting that most of the values have to do with using social media less. While she does not come right out and say it, the healthy way to use social media is to use it sparingly (See the research in this recent article from the Atlantic). If the key to a healthy relationship with social media is using it less, then the “how” of social media isn’t the problem. The reactive advice that the younger generation has supposedly acted on from the older generation isn’t the problem. Perhaps, we must go deeper. Perhaps the medium itself values (and therefore encourages) certain behaviors and mindsets. I kept wanting Freitas to go there—to question the medium itself (she does so indirectly in her value of quitting). The evidence she presents is overwhelming. Social media and smartphones are making college students (and probably a lot of older people) unhappy. But she seems to have bought into the inevitability of the media. Everyone’s going to do it, might as well do it, right? Is that true? Is it possible to resist the tide smartphones and social media have unleashed? Marshall McLuhan, an early pioneer of media criticism, reminds us that it’s possible. He states, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”
The Happiness Effect is a fascinating read into how the younger generation thinks about social media. This book would be an excellent read for pastors. There is a whole generation out there searching for meaning, and they aren’t finding it in the online realms of social media. They find the task of keeping up an image burdensome. They are not happy even though they appear to be on social media. Preachers must understand that many young people coming to their churches are exhausted by keeping up an image. The question before us is, will we give them a gospel that frees them?