Why Facebook makes me sad

‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’

Back in the day, I used to take a mischievous delight in challenging anyone who I ever heard say this.

‘Really? How else do you decide whether to buy a book? And what’s the point of the cover if not to help you make a judgement about whether it’s worth reading?

So, yes, I’m a pedantic pain in the arse.

Thankfully, the advent of ebooks and online reviews means people can now dispense this old wisdom without fear of such irritating interruptions. And there’s a lot of wisdom there to take. Both as a general warning against judging any situation too quickly, and – more importantly in the context of mental health – that appearances can be deceptive.

Games you should play with your pussy
Warning: despite the cover illustration, this book contains no useful advice whatsoever about how to teach your cat to play chess‘ < Thank goodness for online reviews, ay?!

In other words, that friend of yours with the seemingly perfect life? Behind closed doors he spends his hours sat on a three legged stool eating nothing but pink bubble gum whilst talking to his pet caterpillar.

I was recently reminded of this problem, when I found myself uniquely on the other side of the lens.

A colleague was suffering from stress, and experiencing some of the same symptoms I had last year. Sadly, she was in too much of a rush for a proper chat, so as she was leaving I offered a quick warning…

‘Take it easy and don’t let yourself get too stressed. You don’t want to end up like me!’

Her reply?

‘Oh, I wish’

As I walked away, and thought about her tone and body language, the horror began to hit. She wasn’t – as I had automatically assumed – being cheekily sarcastic. This was genuine envy… I thought about running after her:

‘Wait! Things aren’t as they appear! I’m actually severely depressed and in constant inner turmoil! In fact, I’d barely finished sobbing in the toilets when I bumped into you!’

Alas, the moment was gone. But, the lesson was learnt. If even I – the most openly screwed-up person I know – can appear enviable, then you really really can’t trust outside appearances.

Which brings me onto Facebook. That great forum of baby/animal/food photos, ‘inspirational’ quotes’ and – as I recently shouted in a fit of bitterness:

Blatant self-aggrandising propaganda!!!

Five minutes of looking at my Facebook feed, and you’d be hard pressed not to conclude everyone else has millions of friends, are in happy relationships, and are doing the jobs of their dreams. And when they’re not working, they’re ‘checking in’ at trendy restaurants, drinking exotic cocktails, and uploading bizarre pictures of their legs (or hotdogs, I can’t always tell the difference).

These days, it’s almost inconceivable to do something charitable without making sure everyone else knows about it. (Image from The Other Courtney – who, at the end of this fantastic blog post on online bragging, dares her readers to ‘perform random acts of kindness and don’t tell anyone’)

The positive thinking brigade would probably tell me this should make me happy. That I should be happy that my friends are living such amazing lives… While I’m lying in bed, barely able to wash and feed myself.

But… Well… It’s not quite that easy, is it? Because, some of us have this unhelpful habit of benchmarking ourselves against our acquaintances. And by ‘some of us’ I mean ‘almost every decent person I’ve ever met’.

This is especially problematic in cultures like the UK, where people have an unhealthy obsession with ego and status. Keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. And whatever you do, don’t give an honest reply if someone asks, ‘How are you?’!

In this context, it seems only natural that so many of us experience schadenfreude; that guilty pleasure when bad things happy to other people. It’s not that we’re fundamentally evil. It’s just that we long to feel that we’re not the only ones with messy and challenging lives.

I, for example, experience very mixed emotions when a friend confesses they’re suffering from mental health problems. Clearly, I’d rather they didn’t. I want my friends to be happy and healthy, whereas I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But at the same time… And I feel quite ashamed of admit this… it is a relief to know I’m not the only nut in the house.

For a ‘social utility’ that promises to ‘connect people with friends’ this might be why I (and many others) often feel so sad and lonely after using Facebook. It just doesn’t support the kind of interactions that make me feel accepted for who I am. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when I upload a photo, or post a status, that gets a lot of ‘likes’. But the reverse, is sadly doubly true. The times when you most need a hug, and upload a vulnerable or very personal status, are exactly the times when you’ll be ignored.

How we’re treated on Facebook can really influence our mood. (Image shamefully copied from Spo-Reflections. I doubt he got permission from Charles Schulz either…)

Which is why, last month, I left Facebook. I wouldn’t advise the same for everyone – Facebook is, like it or not, a part of modern life. But I would advise you to think about how you use Facebook and, in particular, how you tend to feel after using it. One thing that might help, is this little tip from Oliver Burkeman‘s ‘Help! How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done‘ (which, by the way, everyone should read). Next time you’re on Facebook looking forlornly at someone’s show-off holiday pics (or perhaps even in real life when someone’s boasting about themselves) just imagine a little box pop up that says,

Don't Forget: This person is barely holding things together

Because you can’t judge a Facebook friend by their cover photo.

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Freshly (De)pressed

This week, the UK has been bathed in sunshine. The snowdrops are out. And the fashion has moved from hats and coats to jackets and shadows. In other words, the sun is finally tiring of its seasonal affair with the Southern Hemisphere and is beginning to cast a few flirting glances back our way. For anyone like me, who’s depression typically peaks during Winter, this is good news. Both for the boost in serotonin turnover, and because the arrival of spring is fairly symbolic. Of renewal. Awakening. And chocolate. On second thoughts, that last one might be just be Easter…

Unfortunately, my own renewal has been rather stalled. Instead of enjoying a run in the sun, I’ve been stuck indoors. In bed. It’s not entirely Fido‘s fault. I’ve been ill. Well… the other type of ill. The type where you feel less guilty and get more sympathy. An ‘acute physical illness’. Sniffling, shivering, aching. All fairly mild stuff. Except, when I’m physically ill, my other symptoms get much worse. Fatigue, nausea, headaches. So, to use the technical term, I’ve been feeling ‘rather shitty’.

Which is a shame because last week something lovely happened. It started with an email. From a ‘WordPress Editor’. Telling me that my previous post, the one entitled, ‘How are you?‘ (thanks for asking, I’m ‘rather shitty’ thank you) had been selected to be ‘Freshly Pressed‘. This was interesting for three reasons, 1) I didn’t know WordPress had editors 2) Now that I’m aware of their existence, I still have no idea what a WordPress editor does 3) I’d previously never heard of anything being ‘freshly pressed’ outside of an organic juice shop. Regardless, the upshot was that between about 9pm on Saturday night (when it first appeared on the drinks menu) and now, the #BlackDogRunner blog gained around 2000 hits, 200 followers, and 150 comments.

Freshly pressed
No need to press quite so hard! (Adapted from I Had a Black Dog)

When I’m feeling a little less exhausted – and daunted – I’d like to try reply to all these lovely comments. In the meantime, I thought I’d write this quick post to welcome all the new followers, and pass on my special thanks to everyone who has left a comment  – never mind the spring sun (and chocolate), you’ve really brightened up these last few days. You’ve also made some very interesting and insightful points. For one thing, it seems the how-are-you-problem is an international phenomenon, not simply a British one. So, erm, bad luck everybody. Secondly – for some people – ‘how are you?’ apparently isn’t always meant as a question, but may simply be an alternative way of saying ‘hello’. In this spirit, I have decided that, ‘Has anyone ever explained to you the difference between a question and a statement?’ is now also an alternative way of saying ‘goodbye’.  Have a good weekend and thanks again!

#BlackDogRunner

P.S. The next (proper) blog post shall appear on Wednesday 19th March. To whet your appetite, here’s a tantalising sneak preview… ‘Blatant self-aggrandising propaganda!!!’…. Come back next week to find out what I’m (so pretentiously) complaining about.