When it comes to posting on social media, we all feel pressure to be #onpoint. But what we post doesn’t necessarily reflect our true self or how we really feel. Studies show the pressure to be ‘always on’ and insta-ready is damaging to our happiness. It’s time to take a reality check!

There are very real benefits to happiness – it’s better for our health and research shows that it leads to a more successful life. But Associate Professor Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne, believes societal pressures to feel happy can actually have the opposite effect and might contribute to the prevalence of depression in Australia.

“Depression rates are typically higher in countries that place a premium on happiness. Rather than being the by-product of a life well-lived, feeling happy has become a goal in itself. Smiling faces beam at us from social media and happiness gurus flog their latest emotional quick fixes, reinforcing the message that we should aim to maximise our positive emotions and avoid our negative ones. If we fail to live up to that, what effect does it have on us?” asks Associate Professor Bastian from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.

A recent study examined the relationship between the expectation to not experience negative emotions, and the occurrence of depressive symptoms. The responses showed that the more a participant felt social pressure not to feel sad or anxious, the more likely they were to do so. The study provided important new insights into factors that predict whether people feel depressed on a daily basis, and it appears that a person’s social environment plays a central role in determining mental illness.

“Traditional depression research generally focuses on the role of person-specific characteristics, meaning that researchers look at genes, biomarkers, cognitive and behavioural styles. But the findings from this study suggest that external cultural factors are also at play,” says Dr Bastian.

“One in five Australians experience depression - that’s an epidemic. With epidemics like diabetes, researchers look at individual factors like a person’s biology and personal choices like diet and exercise, but they also look at broader societal factors like economic disadvantage or the proliferation of fast foods. I think we need to do the same with depression in order to explain its prevalence.”

In another recent study, Dr Bastian looked at the relationship between social expectations and increased rumination - a focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, due to failure.

After reporting their current emotional state, 120 participants went into one of three experimental conditions to complete a task: solving 35 anagrams in three minutes. What the participants didn’t know was that half of the anagrams had no solvable answer, which meant they were obliged to perform poorly and experience failure.

Depression rates are higher in countries that place a premium on happiness. Picture: Pixabay

In the first condition, participants entered a small room decorated with motivational posters and books where an upbeat host asked them to complete the task. The second scenario involved a neutral room and the same task; while the third condition involved positive decorations and posters, but this time participants were given anagrams that were all solvable; they did not experience failure.

Upon completion of the task, the participants performed an exercise in which they were asked to focus on their breathing. If their thoughts strayed, they were asked to describe the thought and its frequency. Researchers found that participants in the first condition – the ‘happy room’ with 50 per cent unsolvable anagrams – dwelled on their failure more than the participants in the other conditions.

“So we’re finding that over-emphasising happiness – the importance of seeking positive emotion and avoiding negative emotion – has implications for how people respond to their negative emotional experiences. We think we should be happy like we’re expected to be, and when we’re not, it can make us miserable.”

Dr Bastian proposes that in a clinical setting, psychologists can make their patients aware of this societal pressure to be happy, so that they can better choose how to react to it. When scrolling past all the smiling faces on Instagram, they can remind themselves that others are presenting the best version of themselves.

Dr Bastian would like to see more education programs that de-stigmatise feelings of sadness and anxiety. “We’ve become so used to people following this social norm of putting their best foot forward and not showing vulnerability. So when a celebrity announces that she’s suffered a miscarriage and is taking some time out, or a politician takes leave to deal with the stresses of the job, it resonates so powerfully with us. This stuff is the gritty truth of life and sharing it doesn’t bring people down, it connects us,” says Dr Bastian. 

Blue sky and serenity - not a reality, just an illusion. Picture: Chompoo Baritone/Facebook

This is a generational issue, but you can get in on the ground floor and help to create a happier tomorrow. Learn how you can positively impact society and contribute to the pursuit of happiness by checking out the Psychology qualifications available to students at the Unversity of Melbourne

*This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Pursuit
Banner: Ben Johnson/Flickr

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