I wasn’t quite sure what to do for my first post. I figure I will write about something that has been on my mind quite a bit in the past few months – social media. This may not seem related to stoicism at first, but the wonderful thing about this philosophy is that it’s lessons are as applicable today as they were 2,000 years ago. After all, human nature has remained largely the same throughout our history.
The ancient Stoics of Greece and Rome may not have had social media, but they had a lot to say about the dangers of distraction, overindulgence, and external validation. Social media checks off all of these boxes. Let’s go ahead and break down exactly how social media does this, why it’s harmful for you, and what the Stoics have to say about it.
External validation is when you rely on other people to feel good about yourself. People who rely on external validation are desperate for the approval and acceptance of their peers, and rely on others to tell them (through their words or actions) that they are a valuable (smart, moral, strong, etc.) person. They typically have low self-esteem and are horrified of the prospect of social rejection. Suffice to say, relying on external validation is bad for your mental health and overall quality of life. You are quite literally enslaving yourself to the opinions of others.
What does this have to do with social media? Well, seeking external validation is one of, if not the leading reason we post on social media. When we receive likes and positive comments on social media, it makes us feel good. And when we get ignored, or receive negative comments, it makes us feel sad, anxious, and disappointed. It is much healthier to derive our sense of self-worth from ourselves.
What did this Stoics have to say about this? Here’s a relevant quote from Meditations:
You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves. (Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do?)Marcus Aurelius
Here, Marcus is highlighting how silly it is to seek praise and derive your self-worth from others. Their opinion of you does not matter, especially when they have so many faults themselves (we all do).
Another issue with social media is that it distracts us from more important matters. This is bad for many reasons: it takes away our focus from more important things, like talking to the person you’re hanging out with, or fixing the myriad problems that we face in our daily lives; it destroys our attention span; and it quite literally wastes our precious time on this planet.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some distraction can be okay. Let’s say you just spent 3 hours focused on your work and need a break to clear your head and recharge. It’s okay to go on Facebook for 5 minutes, although personally I’d rather go for a walk or stretch instead. But most of us overdo distraction, and spend far too much time on it, like mindlessly scrolling through social media for 30 minutes whenever we feel bored.
Here’s a relevant quote from Meditations:
If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment— If you can embrace this without fear or expectation—can find fulfilment in what you’re doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)—then your life will be happy. No one can prevent that.Marcus Aurelius
According to the Stoics, keeping yourself free from distraction is one of the keys to a happy, content life. In my own experience I’ve seen this to be true. When I reduce distractions in my life (including social media), I am happier and more focused and productive.
Worrying about others
One of the most common activities on social media is following the lives of other people, whether they be your friends, celebrities, or that girl from high school you had a crush on. Why do we do this? There are many reasons. We may like the person or be envious of their lifestyle. Or we may simply be bored. But the end result is the same: we end up wasting our time looking at someone else’s life and building negative emotions like envy and anxiety. Instead of focusing on living and improving our own lives, we compare ourselves to other people.
Take this quote from Meditations:
Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.Marcus Aurelius
Social media is the online version of doing exactly what Marcus describes. While there are certainly examples of using social media to “affect the common good” – perhaps one of your relatives is getting married and they’ve invited you, so you should check your Facebook – a lot of the time we spend on social media is done looking at other people’s lives.
To sum things up, if the ancient Stoics were here, they would likely ehave a negative view of social media and recommend we stay away from it. In doing so, you will reduce distraction, improve mental health, and derive your sense of self-worth from yourself rather than others. Having said that, I’m not advocating that you delete all your social media accounts and never use social media again. There are some practical reasons for social media, like work and staying connected with people.
For example, I maintain a Facebook account to stay in touch with people, like high school classmates, people I’ve met traveling, family, and so on. But outside of uploading a few photos here and there and adding new people I meet, I spend little time on Facebook and have no other social media accounts.
Point being, you don’t have to quit things cold turkey, but be honest with how and why you use social media. If it serves a practical purpose, then limit your use to that.
I will end this post with one of my favorite quotes from Meditations:
Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.Marcus Aurelius