instagram has changed how gen z think about happiness

Dopamine, the happiness hormone, is big business for silicone valley. But the highs sold to us on social media are empty and fleeting, which only make us seek more attention on the apps we hate.

by Sophie McKay
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15 August 2019, 7:00am

When Instagram announced it was trialling hiding likes -- a decision that's since been rolled out in six countries -- reactions were unexpectedly extreme. Online speculation discussed the change’s potential impact on music and the arts, while others cynically suggested this was a ploy to boost advertising sales, and one viral video showed a young influencer sobbing over the anticipated affect to her following. But for every sceptic there were 10 more people welcoming the change. It's been well documented, after all, that Instagram's like-hunting culture has had a devastating effect on our mental health. So why were people so gutted about losing those likes? The answer is that Instagram has become more than just a site where we share moments from our lives. It's become a tool to police our happiness.

“There’s a system it supports, just by existing," Jo Becker tells me. Jo, 21, is a student and activist who lives in Scotland and runs a sustainability Instagram in her spare time. "We have to be a certain type of beauty or fit into certain boxes. I personally don’t edit my pictures other than light or quality. That’s part of my political resistance to it."

Refusing to edit photos might seem like a small act, but the ubiquitous nature of Instagram curation and the strict standards it forces on us means it's significant. Since launching in 2009, Insta has evolved from a simple photo sharing app to a business platform with its hands deep in everyone's pockets. Over 39% of accounts now belong to influencers, who rely on the platform as a source of income. Advertisers spent $1.6 billion on Instagram last year alone. The selfie has transformed from a self-portrait into the advert of our time. We can all live our own editorial. Glossy, heightened, curated.

When we curate our lives there’s one emotion we're typically commodifying: happiness. #happy ranks as one of Instagram’s most used hashtags (there are currently 537,570,533 posts with it). But our performed happiness couldn’t be further from the truth. “Instagram is an accreditation mechanism, a bit like consumer credit scores,” explains writer and political economist Will Davies. “To be disliked on social media is simply to not be liked at all. So you have a credit score of zero.”

“Young people are curating their lives and happiness for approval. They get approval, but feel dead inside. They know people are liking the image, not them, not their real life."

Social credit isn’t all we attain from Instagram. Dopamine hits from approval (cited to be more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes) keep us swiping. Dopamine’s effects are complex. Released during activities such as sex, exercise and -- most importantly for social media magnates -- successful social interaction, it pushes us to seek pleasurable experiences. Social media might give us a hit by providing successful social interaction, but if expectations aren’t met or an interaction is considered underwhelming or negative, we become disappointed, dopamine levels drops and we feel low. Because of a feedback loop, however, we continue to seek the hit on the same platform. Dopamine is big business in Silicon Valley: everything from the colours used in notifications through to the sound a message makes is deliberately tailored to tap into our pursuit of the happiness chemical.

The approval we get from social media may be designed to masquerade as happiness, but its ultimate effects are very different from true happiness, attraction or respect. We end up liking not one another, but the products that we've all created. And that commodification of our own emotions acts only as a catalyst for emptiness and alienation. “Young people are curating their lives and happiness for approval,” explains psychotherapist Denise Dunne. “They get approval, but feel dead inside. They know people are liking the image, not them, not their real life. So they put more filtered photos up. They’re going out when they don’t want to, taking photos for Instagram so people believe they’re having a good time. Engaging with Instagram is engaging in a world of images and objectification. No matter how many likes you get, you’re going to end up feeling inadequate.”

Our Instagram interactions have become less and less like true social exchanges and instead mirror our interaction with other consumer industries, which are based on the premise that if we’re not satisfied we’ll keep consuming. It isn’t in Instagram’s interest for you to find satisfaction or happiness -- which is similar to the model of a tech company (products are designed to break and be replaced with updated ones) or a dating app (if you actually found love you’d stop using it).

“Looking at Instagram is like looking at an empty fridge, you keep checking it and checking it but it’s still the same,” artist and Instagram user Andrea Mena tells me. “Adverts have always worked this way, with unhappiness. Before Instagram, it was on TV -- the perfect holiday in the Bahamas, the ideal marriage, famous people advertising everything. It’s just that now it’s not only the 1% promoting things.”

By removing likes, Instagram’s policy change now places the onus of negative feelings on users. Much like the mental gymnastics used in the diet and "mindfulness" industry, the twist turns social media negativity on its head. It means that you’re the problem. Not the content. Not the platform itself. You.

This feeds into a narrative we’ve come to accept; that happiness is an insular idea and mental wellbeing is our own responsibility. The self-care industry caters to this idea, telling us to tackle our negative emotions with self-help books, podcasts, apps, clean eating or the self-soothing movement. All are about selling products: yoga mats, vegetable boxes or face masks. After all, a better sense of self can be found for a simple cost, right? These movements focus on the “look good, feel good” slogan (something Instagram capitalises on). Significantly less emphasis is placed on creative or intellectual development, which promotes conformity. This deflects from the notion that mental health and happiness are reliant on forces bigger than those found in our inboxes or waiting to be clicked on. Crucially, the narrative disregards the role of government or big business in protecting society’s wellbeing, and refuses to address mental illness as a collective health concern.

Frequently described as lonely, stressed and romantically unfulfilled, it makes sense that we (Gen Z and millennials both) are looking online for connection. But that's not to say there isn’t a backlash brewing to the uber-curated world sold on Instagram. Stressed and lonely? Sure, but Gen Z are also one of the most politically engaged generations ever. We’re likely to boycott or buy from a brand based on its social values, 83% of us give to charity, and we’re leading the way in the UK when it comes to issues like climate activism and Brexit.

“Happiness and mental wellbeing should be at the centre of our political world,” says Jo. “We’re not given the time or infrastructure to experience different types of happiness or find mental wellbeing. My generation is asking for change -- we haven’t completely figured out how to get it, but we know what we want.”

Increasingly, that desire for change is coming with a suspicion towards Instagram's hashtag happiness. Questioning ourselves and what makes us happy is healthy, and self-improvement and self-care are undoubtedly positive concepts. But more crucial still, is questioning the world around us and how that dictates our definitions of 'happiness'. It's only when we get to the bottom of that question that we'll stop relying on likes. They're not making us happy.