Social media has allowed us, even encouraged us, to assemble a huge tranche of personal memories. Old photo albums from when we were kids, videos of blissful holiday moments and written accounts of life’s biggest landmarks. And in this current period of uncertainty, those memories have turned out to be psychologically potent.
Some of us have chosen to immerse ourselves in the past as a form of escapism; new hashtags such as #MeAt20, with pictures of people joyously emerging from their teenage years, have gone viral, while well-established ones such as #ThrowbackThursday have seen a surge in numbers.
This shows the familiarity of the past can be a source of comfort. But for many of us, these memories are proving an unwelcome reminder of pleasures that can, on occasion, feel like they have gone forever.
Reminders of our own past joys and successes
The losses we are currently experiencing – social connections and routines – can have a profound impact, according to Tim Bono, lecturer in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and author of the book Happiness 101.
“Grief is a word that can be applied to many different kinds of situations, including the loss of the way that we have become accustomed to doing things,” he says. “It’s important to acknowledge that sense of loss, lean into it and to develop strategies that allow us to cope effectively.”
Social media would appear to offer many such strategies. Real-world social connections can be supplanted by virtual ones. Countless digital tools offer windows into the lives of people who feel the way we do, and there are plenty of reminders of our own past joys and successes, too. But they all invite comparison, and as former US president Theodore Roosevelt asserted, comparison is the thief of joy.
“Psychologists have known for a long time that it’s really hard to be happy if we are wondering how our lives measure up to those of other people,” says Bono. “And we could extend that to wondering how our life right now measures up to our life in the past.”
Why we idealise the past
There are a couple of well-established cognitive biases that can convince us that the past is golden, the present is bad and the future is likely to get worse. There is negativity bias, which is tied to our survival instinct: we overestimate danger and dwell on potential threat. (We did not need Covid-19 to experience this.)
There is also a tendency to idealise the past, according to Bono; we cherry-pick positive moments that distort our memories, and this is something social media can exacerbate.
“We have all seen people out and about who look unhappy, but when the camera comes out they look like they are having a great time,” he says.
“We craft digital media personas that will attract the interest and envy of others, but they are not true to life. This is responsible for a lot of the angst that people experience when they compare their situation to ones they see on social media.”
Performative pandemic life: why we are still striving for perfection
Perhaps strangely, people are continuing to project these idealised depictions of their lives during lockdown. It has been referred to as a “performative pandemic life”: carefully honed backdrops for video calls, examples of perfect baking, perpetually upbeat hashtags such as #lockdownlife and #lockdowndiaries that do not necessarily reflect the general mood.
“We have something of an obsession with happiness,” says Bono. “We want to convince others – and perhaps even ourselves – that we are living in a state of perpetual bliss. But when researchers go out into the world, they find that the happiest people understand that adversity and anxiety are simply part of life.”
People – such as myself – who struggle with anxiety about the future may now find themselves baulking at their idealised digital pasts. The tendency of social media platforms, particularly Facebook, to boost engagement by randomly alerting us to those memories can be doubly irritating. For Bono, this provides an important lesson.
“We need to acknowledge negativity, because the alternative is to suppress it and to start to beat ourselves up … Then we end up with what psychologists call a secondary emotion, where we feel bad because we are feeling bad.”
Bono stresses that the sadness that many of us are experiencing right now is not permanent, regardless of the cognitive pushes and pulls of social media.
“We know that we have had happy times in the past, which gives us good reason to believe that we will have happy times in the future.”