2016.06.02 The Dark Side of Happiness

"The best measure of any society is how we treat our most vulnerable citizens."

Finishing off his TEDx talk with these words, Meik Wiking, the CEO of The Happiness Research Institute, followed a norm that seems to be driven by more than just his involvement with happiness:

    Do we evaluate a society primarily on how the people in the top quartile fare or on how those in the bottom quartile fare?

The background for his interest in how the lowest quartile fare was somber: Why is it that Denmark, a country that again and again is touted as having the highest life satisfaction in the world, has such a high suicide rate? (An expected number of suicides in the country, 500 on a population of 5.5 mill people, places the rate somewhere around the global median.)

The answer seems to involve that when everybody around us supposedly are happy, it is much more difficult to be unhappy. It is one thing to commiserating with other people but being miserable and believing that "this only happens to me" is a recipe for disaster.

Wiking touched on how "Facebook moments" - the highlights people choose to share on social media - skew our impressions of how they live and how happy they are.

So when people go off Facebook for a week, they report being more happy; they don't have to look at their friends' "Facebook moments". Another contributing factor is that people have to contact friends directly instead of relying on group broadcasting. Not surprisingly, having real talks with real people makes us happier than just sending them "thumbs up" from our smartphones. (The Facebook Experiment report can be downloaded here by scrolling down and clicking on the picture.)

We often decide what is worthy of being "Facebook moments" from the same criteria that in previous generations informed what to write in the yearly "Christmas updates": What will make me look good and increase my status?

This is really ironic as all evidence points to that building connections among people is better done when we approach each other from a genuinely humble position.

Facebook's own COO, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote a piece for Mother's Day where she recognized that her book "Lean In" had been written from the save, somewhat ignorant position of a woman who had a spouse supporting her leaning in. From the press coverage it seems evident that admitting she might have been wrong about some things has not cost her status, on the contrary.

In start-up circles, I think it is safe to say that learning experiences shared at F#ck-up Night arrangements contain some events that gained value only in hindsight. At the time these things happened, many were painfully frightening and/or embarrassing. But by sharing the experiences the story tellers gained valuable connections to people who might help them succeed.

If we could follow Sandberg's lead and transfer the courage from professional events to our private lives, fewer people might feel "left out" from the communal happiness.

Much energy can be released towards more productive ends if we can share such experiences and realize that our worst moments are not what define us in the eyes of other people. Our "Facebook moments" don't define us, either - but the shares intended to impress may define us in a bad way.