Over spring break, I was driving home from the Bay Area with some friends. We had made a day trip to get out of town and do something fun together, but the day hadn’t gone as planned, as it was busy everywhere and we ran out of time. By the end of the day, we were exhausted and annoyed, stuck in rush hour traffic.The car fell silent, besides the radio softly creating background noise, as we all sat on our phones, waiting impatiently for the traffic to clear so we could be home.
Essentially, we were wishing the day away.
About halfway through the ride, I noticed this, and it just about broke my heart. How many times have we spent time wishing away the present simply because it wasn’t what we had wanted or expected? How many times have we sat silently, our faces in our phones, while surrounded by people we love?
“We should all put our phones away.” I said, not really aware that I had said it out loud, and suddenly fearing an irritated comment from someone else in the car. But to my surprise, the friend sitting next to me said, “You’re right. We are all here together and we aren’t even talking.” So we put our phones into our bags and somehow managed to forget about them for a little while.For the next hour, the mood of the entire car shifted. There, in that dead stopped rush hour traffic, we were suddenly happy. The sun was shining for the first time in weeks and we rolled down all the windows to feel the light breeze blowing gently through the car. There were beautiful yellow flowers on the side of the freeway, a small piece of nature we had missed by looking down. We were teased each other, laughing and smiling. We actually listened to the music that was playing, and soon found ourselves fighting over the aux cord for the chance to share songs we loved with the people we loved. And those hours in traffic, without my phone in my hand, aren’t on my Instagram feed or my Facebook profile. There aren’t videos and pictures to document that I was having fun. And yet, this is one of my favorite memories from Spring Break, one that is most vividly imprinted in memory.
And this was true of the entire month that I took off of social media, recently. At first, I felt overwhelmingly bored, lonely, and disconnected. My fear of missing out was intense. However, this only solidified my decision and showed me how addicted I was, how much time I actually spent looking at other people’s lives instead of being present in my own.
And over that month, the memories I made are so clear in my head. The feelings I had were deeply and truly mine, not influenced by the moods and ideas of those around me. The experiences I had were things I wanted to do, not things I did to please others. I became more present, more selfless, and more me than I have been in a long time.
I do still have my social media (and did for the month I gave it up). I still post pictures. However, I no longer post with a secret agenda. I no longer post hoping that certain people will see it and feel a certain way. I don’t worry about whether or not my photo was taken with a professional camera, or whether my caption is funny. I post things for me, to express who I truly am and share what I’m happy about with the people I love. But I got rid of the apps on my phone, in order to make a conscious effort to be present and not aimlessly scroll through Instagram or Twitter just because I’m bored or uncomfortable. Removing the apps removes not only the temptation of distraction and temporary pleasure, but of comparison and feelings of inadequacy. If you have the courage, I dare you to try and do the same.
During the month of my social media cleanse, both to share and remind myself, I made a list of the positive changes I experienced (each accompanied by a quote from a book I read in the freetime I discovered).
So here it is: When I’m not on social media…
- I find joy in simplicity. Recently, I have been slightly more fixated than I’d like to admit on the accumulation of things. We all are striving, whether consciously or not, to create our personal “aesthetic” (a word that came up in nearly every person’s answer on the Instagram survey that I did for a final project last quarter). I was focused on buying clothes that looked like the models I saw on Instagram. I wanted shelves full of books, a camera so I could document my life, a typewriter, so that my feed looked like that of all the famous writers I followed. However, when I let go of social media, I found that I didn’t want these things as much, or at least not for the same reasons. Almost overnight, I wanted less of everything. Less patterns. Less to-do lists. Less clothes to choose from. Less people to impress. I wanted routine. I wanted to wake up early, the same time every day. I wanted a black cup of coffee in a plain white mug. I wanted one small bag that I took everywhere, instead of three. I had the desire to live in only dresses and rompers, which made me feel gracefully beautiful, and yet didn’t require me to pick out an outfit. I can’t entirely explain this one, except that simplicity gave me greater joy, despite its counter-cultural nature, and it came from letting go of social media’s pressure to be a certain kind of beautiful.
“I’m finding that one of the greatest delights in life is walking away from what someone told you you should be in favor of walking toward what you truly love, in your own heart, in your own secret soul” – Shauna Niequist
2. I am more present and content with the things I am doing: As I mentioned above, letting go of the constant scrolling and clicking taught me to be happier about everyday opportunities. My idea of success began to shift from other people’s reactions to my own feelings and personal achievements. I didn’t do things thinking, “this is gonna look really cute on my instagram” or “I have to put this on my story.”Instead, my entire mindset changed. I did things because I thought “this will make my heart happy.” I found joy in the smallest of things -the sun on my skin, the flowers blooming in the trees, the birds singing –things I only noticed by being truly present. And, in not focusing on documenting moments for the rest of the world, I enjoyed them more myself, and so they made a bigger impact on my heart and mind.
“We are addicted to big and sweeping and photo-ready…But the rush to scramble up onto platforms, to cross oceans, to be heard and seen and known sometimes comes at a cost, and sometimes the most beautiful things we do are invisible, unsexy.” – Shauna Niequist
3. I move away from my fixation with perfection: When I let go of social media, suddenly the life that I was living became less than perfect, and I say that in a good way. Saying “I am not on social media,” got me many shocked faces and a great number of personal questions. Suddenly, my life was less than perfectly normal because of my lack of an online presence. And yet, that thing that made me different was something that gave me more joy, peace, and pride than anything else had in a long time. This realization suddenly applied to everything: why was I trying so hard to hide the things that made me different? Why did I spend so long being ashamed of the things that could make me most proud? My life, and consequentially, my instagram feed, may not look perfect if I don’t spend my time doing what everyone else thinks I should. But if moving away from society’s idea of “perfection,” when it comes to social media, is making me so undeniably happy, why aren’t I doing it in other areas of my life? If sitting outside, alone, with a good book, fills me with complete joy, why shouldn’t I do it? Just because someone else thinks it makes me look antisocial, lonely, or imperfect on the outside? What other people think, their idea of perfection, is never a valid reason to stop doing the things that give you the most joy
“This world, just as it is. This is the good stuff. This is the best stuff there is. Perfect has nothing on truly, completely, wide-eyed, open-souled present” -Shauna Niequist
4. I have an overwhelmingly large amount of free time, contrary to what I usually think. At first, this was extremely uncomfortable. Silencing your phone can feel like shutting yourself off from everyone you know. This often forces us to face things within ourselves, in the silence of our minds, that we avoid on a daily basis. But working through things in silence is a valuable skill that we all should relearn. I found it to be essential to my mental health. This free time also made me more productive. Out of sheer boredom, I began to do the things I knew I should be doing. Having those things done not only took weights off of my shoulders, but allowed me to fill the leftover time with things I had long wanted to do but had been putting off. I read a lot of books. And I mean, a lot. I studied French. I cooked. I explored bookstores and coffee shops. I went to lunch with friends. I took hikes, picnics, and trips to the beach. The free time I had been bored of became my safe haven, an escape from stress and reality.
5. I develop greater connections with the people around me: Not having a phone to fall back on when conversation dies down forces us into deeper, more fulfilling interactions with the people around us. We begin to ask questions to fill the silence, and, therefore, actually connect with the people we spend time with, beyond surface level conversations. And, as I mentioned in the story that began this article, putting away your phone allows you to appreciate the people and things around you, which has the power to make or break your entire mindset.
“The most important thing in all human relationships is conversation, but most people don’t talk anymore, they don’t sit down to talk and listen. They go to the theatre, the cinema, watch tv, listen to the radio, read books, but they almost never talk. If we want to change the world, we have to go back to a time when warriors would gather around a fire and tell stories” -Paulo Coehlo
6. I am less self-focused: Maybe this was a somewhat indirect effect, but being aware of the people around me, their perfectly imperfect lives, and the things that made my own day a little better, I began to prioritize differently. Instead of buying clothes that would look good in Instagram pictures, I bought coffee for the person behind me in line. Instead of sending memes to people I cared about, I sent them unexpected gifts, things that would actually improve their mood or make their lives a little better. I wanted to share the joy and peace I had found in my own life with those around me, and so the way that I treated others came to be built on this idea of true love. Imagine if the whole world lived like this! Imagine if we got our faces out of our phones long enough to truly make a difference in the lives of those around us simply by listening and paying attention.
“This world will tell you how to live if you let it. Don’t let it.” -Shuana Niequist
7. I am happier: This was the most overwhelming effect. I have always been a highly empathetic person, affected deeply by my own feelings and those of others. Social media can be problematic for all of us in this way, but especially for emotional, deep-thinking people like me. However, when I left behind my online feeds, I found I was less affected by what went on outside of my own life; not in a selfish way, but simply because I wasn’t constantly worried about what everyone else was doing, how they were feeling, or how what I was doing and feeling compared. I didn’t miss out on the joys in front of me because I was staring at my phone screen. Instead, I gradually became more grateful for every opportunity, and my mind and heart were consistently oriented towards joy.
“What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over” – Paulo Coehlo
The myths about how deeply and intensely social media affects our brains and hearts are not myths at all. Social media pulls us away from ourselves and who we really are. And then we wonder why, as a society, we are ravaged by unhappiness and depression.
You will never be truly happy until you are truly yourself.
Cliche and generalized, I know. But there’s a reason people have been saying that for as long as we can remember: because it’s true. I didn’t entirely believe it either, until I tried living like that, until I consciously made an effort not to let other people’s opinions of what I liked and how I spent my time, shape who I was. But now that I’ve done it, I don’t think I can ever go back.
I encourage you all to try what I like to call a social media cleanse. It’s like a diet for your mind and soul. Deprive yourself of the things you think you need, the things you think are fun and exciting, and see what amazing things appear to fill their place. And then look back and tell me: do you think social media brings you joy? I have my answer. What’s yours?