Staying sane on the internets

Is it me, or are the internets wearing a lot of people out these days? It seems that a number of blogs are shutting down, and I’ve been feeling a lot of angst among my Facebook set as well. Those of us who have computer-centric jobs can feel continuously bombarded with upsetting news, most of which we can’t do anything about. (I don’t know which I find more depressing, really: the opinions of my FB friends whom I disagree with politically, or the constant links to an ongoing litany of outrages shared by those on my side.) All of which led me to post this a few weeks ago on my Facebook page:

A crazy idea: for every one thing you read on the internet that makes you sad or angry, commit one act of love. Sign a petition. Post a funny video to a friend’s wall. E-mail the manager of your local Starbucks and tell them about the excellent service you got. Introduce two people whom you know would enjoy each other. Ask for other people to share their stories on your blog.

I’ve been practicing this without being consciously aware of it for a few weeks now, and it has, I feel, made a huge difference to my head and heart and soul. Try it.

I’ve been keeping it up since then, and it’s continued to work. And then yesterday, I was catching up on some back issues of New Scientist, and read an article about happiness by Dan Jones. Much of what he said I was already familiar with, but I learned about Barbara Frederickson’s “broaden & build” theory of positive emotions for the first time. According to this theory, positive emotions — joy, affection, curiosity, playfulness — lead to a broadening of our ability to imagine different ways of thinking and acting. And the actions that these emotions prompt us to take — expressing kindness to others, getting physical exercise, exploring the environment, learning experientially or through books or dialogue — build long-term health, social, and cognitive benefits.

I found Dr. Frederickson’s link between immediate good feeling and long-term rewards intriguing, because in the past couple of weeks since I’ve been trying my little “use the internet for good instead of evil” routine, I genuinely have felt better — not just cheerier, but more satisfied with life and my place in it, and even more optimistic about human nature.

(Not, of course, so optimistic as to have lost my basic faith in Murphy’s Law. I know this advice is likely to be read and followed most enthusiastically by exactly the sort of person who shouldn’t: the sort who finds LOLcats to be the very apotheosis of internet humor; who considers sending a chronically ill friend a link to a new alternative-medicine treatment a good deed; who assumes that everyone’s spiritual life, and therefore taste in inspirational quotes or art, is more or less identical; who considers availability and heterosexuality the only qualifications required to be a candidate for matchmaking. But what can I do? I seek to empower, and this at times means empowering the clueless as well.)

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