The story of Solon of Athens and King Croesus is a story about happiness. I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially Croesus wanted to prove to Solon that he was the happiest man alive, but Solon, unimpressed by Croesus’ wealth and power, maintained that the happiest man he had met was a farmer. This farmer had lived happy, and died happy, and therefore could be counted as happy. For no one can be considered safely happy until their end is known.
Croesus couldn’t accept this answer. He couldn’t understand how a lowly farmer could be as happy as he, who had everything. He wanted happiness to be something he owned, something he could toss in amongst his mountains of treasure or order around like one of his servants. But he couldn’t.
The path to happiness cannot be mapped. It will always be coming and going.
Today, social media is doing everything it can to convince us otherwise. Set to reach a billion users this year, Instagram is by far the biggest culprit, with an RSPH study finding it the worst social network for mental health.
It’s no surprise. From hiking the Grand Canyon to enjoying a meal with friends, other people’s lives rarely fail to look epic on Instagram. A recent study found 56% of young people harbor a fear of missing out.
That fear of missing out, colloquially referred to as FOMO, is quite literally a fear of missing out on something that is making someone else happy. As if you’ll miss your chance to be happy if you aren’t there when happiness is disseminated.
At the core of it all stands the influencer. Pixlee defines Instagram influencers as “users who have an established credibility and audience; who can persuade others by virtue of their trustworthiness and authenticity.”
Influencers, targeted by companies that want to grow their brands, get paid to feature products on their feed. Per Zine, 80% of influencers prefer Instagram for brand collaborations. It’s fast becoming the crux of modern marketing; Find someone who looks like they’re leading a desirable life, and get them to plug your product on their feed.
65% of top-performing Instagram posts feature products. Aspiring influencers are no longer posting for their personal life but for their professional life. Instagram has become a career. As with any career, you have to stay ahead of the competition, so users began hiring professional photographers and editors to create the most attractive feed possible.
Perfection slowly replaced authenticity as the standard for influencers. They are selling a path to happiness.
One of the biggest Instagram influencers in the world is a woman named Alexis Ren. A former dancer and teen model, the 21-year-old Ren has garnered a net worth of around $3-million from her 12.7 million Instagram followers and her line of active-wear, Ren Active. On Instagram, she can command up to $25,000 per post.
Scrolling through her feed, in-between the shots of her holding packages of almond chocolates or Swedish hair volume tablets, you’ll see a well manicured selection of professional quality photos of Ms. Ren, taken at luxurious resorts or on pristine beaches. Her captions will say things like “inner peace is the new success” or “woke up next to some blue ass water.” All external signs point to a happy, healthy young woman who is getting nothing but the most out of life. She also posts the occasional plug for a new fitness regiment.
Then, in April of this year, Ms. Ren opened up about struggling with an eating disorder. It began with a few tweets (to her considerably smaller 1.9m twitter following), and culminated with her giving several interviews on her struggling with the pressure to seem perfect, her resulting eating disorder, and the importance of self-love in finding happiness.
But here’s the thing. You wouldn’t know it from her Instagram feed. On her most influential platform, Alexis Ren’s April and May are indistinguishable from any other month; well edited, professional quality photos, a wide smile, vaguely positive captions and some sponsored products.
There’s no trace of imperfection on the very app that makes her feel the need to be perfect.
Advertisers portraying a paid professional as an ordinary person has been festering in our culture since before the proliferation of the smartphone. But now, we don’t just pass these happiness models on billboards as we drive to work, or in ads as we flick through channels. We see them every time we open our phones.
Anxiety in young people has risen 70% in the last 25 years. 91% percent of young people today use the internet for social networking. It’s not a coincidence, it’s a trend.
So let’s reverse the trend. Social media is not a reflection of reality. Let’s stop pretending that it is. Instead of a platform centered around ‘lifestyle bloggers’, Instagram could be a platform for artists and creators, a place where we share our creations instead of pretending to share ourselves.
But first, like King Croesus, we as a society need to redefine our understanding of happiness. It’s one thing to sell a product, it’s another to sell happiness. We need to alleviate the pressure to be happy, so that we can actually make room for happiness. We need to stop looking to other people to define happiness, and start finding it in ourselves.
You don’t have to be happy right now. You just have to seek happiness. That’s what it means to be alive. To find happiness, sometimes you have to admit you haven’t found it yet. A lot of people out there aren’t as happy as their profile pictures make them look.