Truth is often paradoxical, as G.K. Chesterton used to say. Isn’t is hard to believe that the problem of loneliness is actually rooted in too much interaction? But this is what Sean Parker’s uncanny insight seems to suggest. Sean Parker is the founding president of Facebook. He explained in an interview why it’s so hard to resist the impulse to constantly check your social media – even while you are driving. He shared how social media hook you up. “When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’” Now that this prediction is more than fulfilled, the question is even more intriguing. How did they do it?
Sean explains that the founders used basic human psychology – our need for approval. Social media are nothing but a social validation feedback loop. It works like this: The moment you contribute some content and it is liked, shared or commented on, you get a little dopamine hit. This leads you to contribute more content, which, in turn, gives you another hit. You want more likes and comments. We all like to be liked (who knew?) – and social media seem to provide that.
This truth is hard to swallow: Social media work because we all want to be liked. We feel lonely, cut off, isolated, and want to get rid of this feeling at all costs. But does this kind of “interaction” actually help us to solve the problem of loneliness? Far from it. Of course, it will temporarily give us the “high”. It will, like a shot of whisky, medicate the distressing feeling of loneliness for some time. But when its tranquilizing effects wear off, we feel even emptier than before, craving for more validation – more likes, more comments, more shares. Our inner void becomes a gaping hole, an insatiable monster on the inside which grows ever hungrier with every attempt to feed it.
In the words of Jerry Wise, a psychologist and family therapist from Indiana, “the root of loneliness is how you feel about yourself, not whether there are people around you.” One can be alone but not lonely. On the other hand, you can have friends and family around you all the time, and still feel cut off. In fact, we often turn to a spouse, or a friend, or children to quell this voracious appetite for attention. Yet, the result is always the same – other people just cannot bear the burden of our happiness. We may get a little “dose” from them once in a while, but when they leave, we are left even emptier than we were before. That’s not what people are designed for.
What are they designed for? They are designed for sharing the joy that you already have! When we share out of joy, our joy is increased. When we share out of emptiness, our emptiness is increased. Seeking people out of emptiness does not solve the problem of loneliness; we just medicate it and become addicted to the drug, which some of us call Facebook or Instagram. The paradoxical truth is: as long as you “need” others to solve the problem of your loneliness, you will exacerbate your loneliness with every attempt to get rid of it.
If you need validation, you won’t get it. If you let it go, it will come to you. Isn’t it what Jesus said: “Those who try to gain their own life, will lose it. But those who lose their life for My sake, will gain it?” It works with loneliness too. Loneliness is about how we view ourselves. We believe we are not enough as individuals, so we need someone else to fill us up. But it’s not true – we don’t. We can go alone because we are never alone. When we decide to go without people’s love and approval, we start getting love and approval in ways we never deemed possible. God starts validating us in His mysterious ways. When we abstain from the drug of social “likes”, we receive our validation as a gift from God.
Or, rather, we become aware of it. Like Jesus who said: “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone for my Father is with me.” When I feel the irresistible urge to check my phone, even while I am driving, I will often remind myself that if I seek human approval I will not get it. But if I don’t, it will come from God. People cannot fill us up. That’s not what they are for. They are for sharing the joy that we already have. Joy shared is joy doubled. Emptiness shared is emptiness doubled. Social media can be used in a healthy way only when we are enough without them.
When we are addicted to something, we can never get what we are searching for. We are always seeking and never getting. The only way not to be alone is to go alone – knowing that you are never alone. The only way to true connectedness with others is not needing them for your validation. The only way to true connectedness with yourself is getting disconnected from any addictive sources of validation. And waiting on God to do it for you in his own ways.